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Tacoma advocacy group ‘takes’ vacant middle school for homeless, demands housing solutions

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 20, 2020

By Allison Needles (Tacoma) News Tribune

A group of unhoused people is moving into a vacant school building in Tacoma’s Eastside with the help of a housing advocacy group, apparently without authorization.

Tacoma Housing Now announced in a press release Friday that it “took” Gault Middle School for emergency pandemic housing. The school at 1115 E Division Lane has been vacant for more than a decade with plans to turn the site into mixed housing recently falling through.

The group demanded the city of Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools work together to place Gault into a “permanent, community-controlled Community Land Trust,” according to its press release.

“So far we’ve moved in about 10 people,” Rebecca Parson, spokesperson for Tacoma Housing Now, told The News Tribune on Friday.

The move was made without the knowledge of Tacoma Public Schools, which owns the building.

“We’re assessing our options,” district spokesperson Dan Voelpel told The News Tribune via text on Friday.

Tacoma Housing Now tweeted Friday afternoon that school patrol vehicles were at the site.

The school is not safe for people, Voelpel said. The roof has partially collapsed, the electrical wires have been stripped and there’s asbestos and mold inside.

“We’re sympathetic to the needs of the growing numbers of homeless,” Voelpel said. “We serve many homeless students and understand they need safe places. This isn’t a safe place.”

If someone were to get hurt in the building, the district would be liable.

Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Wendy Haddow said officers are on site and that the school property was secure, being unfit for human habitation. Some of the boards have been removed from the building, she said.

The city of Tacoma told The News Tribune on Friday that it also was unaware of the effort by Tacoma Housing Now, but said the city is working with service providers to operate a warming shelter at the Eastside Community Center, 1721 E. 56th St. The warming center is open through 1 p.m. Monday for people who may need shelter.

Parson said Tacoma Housing Now wants Tacoma to “put as many empty homes that are publicly owned into a Community Land Trust that are necessary to house Tacoma’s entire houseless population.”

Community Land Trusts are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of residents, community residents and public representatives and are often used to establish long-term affordable housing, according to the Grounded Solutions Network.

“Every death is one too many, and any person sleeping on the street is one too many and that’s why we turned this school into emergency pandemic housing,” Parson said.

As of Friday afternoon, the group was cleaning the building and had portable toilets delivered.

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