Not the Best for the Land or for the Homeless


Guest Editorial

by Claudia Finseth,
Parkland, Pierce County Planning Commissioner emeritus
24 March 2023

On Tuesday, March 21, I sat through the six hour meeting of the Pierce County Council. The vast majority of community members who spoke (I am guessing around 75%) asked the council specifically not to put the planned tiny home village for the homeless on the 80 acre parcel of land they are looking at in Spanaway—a parcel filled with wetlands essential to the health of the lakes and waterways downstream (Spanaway Lake, Tule Lake, and all the creeks and ponds between) as well as the native wildlife there. We feel it is the wrong site ecologically.

As John Briehl, director emeritus of the City of Tacoma’s Human Rights and Human Services, responsible for Tacoma’s response to homelessness until his retirement in 2010, wrote to the council and executive:

“Sometimes one can’t just engineer their way out of situations that weren’t meant to be, especially without deleterious collateral impact and tremendous cost. Perhaps there is a good reason why this site has remained in wetlands all these years when Spanaway has been exploding with marginally controlled growth. It is just an untenable location by any definition.”

In the end, the council chose to ignore the community and voted the project along.

The council not only didn’t speak to community concerns, but in his statements at the end of the meeting, Council member Dave Morrell seemed determined for the homeless village to be on this parcel and no other. He accused the community of being NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yarders) about the homeless. He also threatened that the wetland parcel ‘WILL BE DEVELOPED’, and we can choose either a big housing development or a nice little tiny village for the homeless.

I sat there and asked myself, really? Were those our only choices? Has anyone even bothered to explore other options? What did Morrell know that he could state this with such certainty? And why was he pushing so hard for this location, when it was clearly environmentally inappropriate? When it was my turn to speak, I asked the council, “Why this land?”

I received no answer. When I got home, I began to research tiny home villages for the homeless. I ran across a video of Donald Trump at a D.C. rally last summer saying this:

“The only way you’re going to remove the hundreds of thousands of people, and maybe, throughout our nation, millions of people … and help make our cities clean, safe and beautiful again, is to open up large parcels of inexpensive land in the outer reaches of the cities … and create thousands and thousands of high-quality tents.”

I found his implication that homeless people are not clean or safe very sad. I have a friend who was once, at a difficult time in her life, homeless. She is one of the loveliest people I know.

I next found a very different article entitled, “Advocating Internment Camps for Homeless People is Increasingly Mainstream. This Should Frighten Us”. In it, Adam Johnson calls the idea of locating the bulk of our homeless in one place out of the mainstream of society nothing short of : “internment camps and imprisonment.”

Johnson goes on to say, “Homelessness Crisis” discourse can generally be broken down into two distinct trends . . . On one side, there are those who believe the crisis in question is that there are human beings living without shelter and the central conflict is a lack of available homes and care for the people who need them; on the other side, there are those who think the crisis is that there are too many homeless people in public spaces who, by virtue of existing, are “hurting business” and generally undermining the ‘quality of life’ of ‘taxpayers.’  The logical end of this Just Get Them Out of My Sight approach, internment camps, is increasingly becoming a mainstream position.”

I hadn’t heard from the council that there is national debate going on about these tiny homes villages for the homeless. But there is. And many people don’t like them for humanitarian reasons.

Is it possible that, couched under talk of pleasant tiny homes, what the leaders of Pierce County are really trying to do is get our homeless out of sight, on a large parcel of inexpensive land, in the outer reaches of the cities? A parcel without easy access to services, public transport, educational and job opportunities or health care? Is 257 tiny homes surrounded by wetlands almost like a walled or fenced place to keep the homeless in?

“And then what?” writes Jim Schutze in yet another article, this for the Dallas Observer, “Tell me again why it’s better to have temporarily homeless people herded into a distant camp with people who have serious mental, drug and criminal problems, all of them concentrated together out on the edge of the city where nobody can see them rather than in the middle of the city where everybody can see them? . . . Homeless encampments anywhere are wounds on the body of the community. We have to work to cure the diseases that cause them. But that will never happen if we hide the wounds.”

The county is under a lot of pressure to do something about the homeless situation, but to put the bulk of them all together on an environmentally sensitive parcel of land is wrong. And maybe, to treat the homeless this way is wrong, too. We need some answers from the council and the executive. Not spin. Honest answers.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. says:

    Perfectly said, bottom line is “zone change” weather the village is built or not is not the real question. Will they get the zoning changed? That’s all the “czar” wants. Change the “zoning” for precedence to build on any “wetland” in Pierce County. They could give a “hoot” about the homeless.

  2. Alyce Warren says:

    I just don’t understand why they don’t convert the old KMart building into a shelter instead. Make individual apt. rooms with locking doors, but have community services available to all. Plenty of parking. On the busline. All the positives go on and on. Why isn’t it considered?

    1. Lynn says:

      I agree with trying to use something like the old Kmart. It is on the bus line for transportation and access to jobs and food health and welfare opportunities.

  3. Susan C. Painter says:

    The old K Mart would be great location, but I think someone own’s it and the cost to buy might be to high. As far as the homeless being so far outside the CITY, do you want to have a business where people can’t get to your door because there is a tent in front of it? NO you do not! The conduct of 3/4 of the homeless is horrible!! Filth and used needles, etc, is just the icing on the cake!

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