During my lunch breaks at work I like to walk. I alternate between coffee shops, taking different routes on different days, seeing different neighbors while patronizing different downtown and Hilltop businesses. My walks often go past homeless encampments, and I’ve gotten to know and like some of the good folks living at some of them.
Over the last year I’ve met people living at the camp on Yakima and South 8th Street, and some of the people living outside on Yakima between South 15th and South 17th. I also got to know a bunch of my neighbors on South G Street, behind St. Leo’s. I love to stop and chop it up, talk sports or politics, or have a laugh. It feels good to be seen.
Recently, however, my neighborhood walks have become less conversational.
This is why I’m writing. My neighbors are disappearing and being replaced by rocks. Hundreds of big ol’ mountain bits, two to three hundred pounds apiece, now fill up the areas where my neighbors used to camp. From what I can gather, it seems the camps of people who used to occupy these areas were taking up a lot of space while being really poor, and that combination of place and poverty got them kicked out, scattered around the city and replaced by boulders.
It’s kind of weird because the rocks also take up a lot of space. In fact, the replacement boulders take up the exact same amount of space as my neighbors once did; more, in some cases. Sometimes, the rocks are even surrounded by fences — fences protecting the rocks that fill up the places. A whole bunch of what used to be unsanctioned homeless encampments are now spaces with only one function: impeding anyone from using them. It is a really weird situation, but the greater point is that no extra spaces have been regained.
And the boulders dropped really don’t look that wealthy. Perhaps they appear slightly more organized than the previous occupants? I don’t know. The rocks definitely look solid, put together, real firm formations, maybe even tough. But certainly not rich. While it’s probably not cheap to drop boulders up and down Yakima Avenue, South G street, South 8th Street and Tacoma Avenue, it’s hard to argue the giant rocks’ appearance makes the area look wealthier in any meaningful way. They’re big, ugly eyesores that’ll soon become graffitied and surrounded by garbage and unruly weeds. So why did these unwealthy and bulbous rocks get to replace my neighbors?
At the root of this is Tacoma’s approach to addressing homelessness, and as part of that, the city’s recently approved camping ban, which was passed by our City Council in October and went into effect last month. The ordinance provides quasi-legal grounds to remove many of the homeless encampments in the city and punish those who insist on living in the spaces where rocks now often appear. Through site hardening — or bringing in boulders — the city legally makes public areas unlivable. By prioritizing punishment and deterrents instead of housing, our elected officials have endorsed what amount to unconstitutional city-sanctioned sweeps. Thank you esteemed City Council members John Hines, Sarah Rumbaugh, Joe Bushnell, Kristina Walker, Olgy Diaz and Mayor Victoria Woodards for displacing human beings in favor of your rock collection. Boulder enthusiasts around the world are paying attention. As, most assuredly, are the people of Tacoma.
We all see this gross valuation of sidewalk and mud patches over people. We see the hundreds of costly rocks dropped where previously folks with nothing and nowhere else to go were clinging to the harshest of existences. We see society’s fringes, Tacoma’s most vulnerable citizens, our neighbors, being forcibly exiled, swept senselessly around the city in small groups with no legitimate options. And we see the tiny bit of public space they had previously used for the purposes of staying alive being intentionally made unlivable. We see it and we won’t look away.
I’m going to start using my considerably quieter lunch walks to plan some “Not in my backyard!” actions against these boulders. I’m tired of rocks acting like they own our streets, using our corners and public spaces for no good, contributing nothing while insisting they have a right to just be.
Rocks are the worst, way worse than people. It’s time for NIMBYs against boulders to unite.
Jake Nau is a husband, father and writer who has worked in social services for 15-plus years, spending most of that time working with people experiencing homelessness.