After occupying a vacant middle school for a few hours on Friday, roughly ten residents of an unsheltered community who sleep under the 509 bridge in Tacoma's tideflats feel "hopeful and optimistic" about a change in the city's approach to housing and homelessness, according to Rebecca Parson, an organizer with Tacoma Housing Now.
The residents and activists entered the school to set up a shelter following the recent deaths of two community members. Parson said a man "in his 60s" named Tommy Hutchison died of exposure this month, and another person died in a car more recently.
Tacoma Housing Now listed six demands in a press release, and chief among them was the creation of a Community Land Trust that included the school and "as many vacant, city-owned properties as are necessary to house Tacoma’s entire houseless population."
When the group got inside, Parson said "electricians, a physician, a mental health counselor, a couple EMTs, lawyers, and union organizers" helped organizers begin to clean and fix up the place. Activists planned to use the top floor as a COVID-19 quarantine zone, with room for shelter and services on the first floor. Throughout the day, neighbors dropped off groceries and hand-warmers.
Once the Tacoma School District learned of the occupation, they sent school police to the area and ultimately called the city's cops.
The district owns the building, which has sat empty since the school closed in 2009. Tacoma Police trained in Gault for a few years, but stopped in 2017 after the district assessed the building for asbestos and mold, said police spokesperson Wendy Haddow. Haddow told the The News Tribune "mold levels," "possible asbestos," a "not sound" structure," and the lack of utilities rendered the building "not fit for human habitation." She said "part of the roof above the pool has collapsed," which also presented an issue.
After an afternoon of negotiations, the Tacoma Police Department's "HEAT Team," which normally responds to "the meth labs," according to Haddow, donned hazmat suits to protect themselves against the mold and confronted the activists with an ultimatum: accept temporary shelter or face a felony. (Haddow said someone "cut the boards...and the chains" securing the school, and so some could have been charged with burglary.) The group decided to leave voluntarily.
During negotiations, Parson said police kept telling the residents about possible asbestos in the building, but the residents said they'd "rather be breathing asbestos than dying outside in the cold." There was also an offer of ten shelter beds at the city's warming shelter, Parson said, but that offer was "insufficient," as more than ten people sleep under the bridge.
"And the way the shelter has been running is a joke," she added. People in the local homeless communities either don't know the shelter exists or don't know when it's open, Parson continued, because it's only open during certain cold conditions based on Monday's forecast for each day of the week. The city recently extended the shelter's operating days through Dec. 31.
"We all get it, we really do. We all want everyone to have some place to live," Haddow said. "Unfortunately, Gault Middle School wasn’t one of those places, even if we wanted it to be."
Though the group no longer occupies the school, Parson said the action inspired confidence in the residents. "They finally feel like someone's talking about what they're going through, and it's getting some attention," she said. Over the weekend, Tacoma Housing Now raised around $10,000 on GoFundMe and Venmo "to replace items that the cops wouldn't let residents retrieve and to buy additional camp supplies to keep people from freezing to death."
Parson vowed to keep the pressure on with more actions. "We're just getting started," she said.
Tacoma Housing Now joins a nationwide movement with a long history of occupying buildings to meet urgent needs. In the last few years, similar actions from Moms 4 Housing and Philadelphia Housing Action pushed property owners to strike deals with activists. Locally, Operation Homestead squatted in a bunch of buildings in the 1990s, which eventually led to the Low Income Housing Institute acquiring Arion Court. In the early 1970s, Latino activists occupied Beacon Hill School and convinced the city to lease it to them for a dollar per year. That building is now El Centro de la Raza. Similarly, Africatown occupied the Horace Mann school building in the Central District to draw attention to racial disparities in Seattle schools.