Former tenants of the Merkle Hotel in Tacoma, Wash. Struggled to find accommodation after being forced out of their apartment building in 2018. Many had nowhere to go.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Three years ago, the last remaining residents of the Merkle Hotel in Tacoma, Washington, were on the brink of disaster, of homelessness. The Merkle Hotel, you see, didn’t function as a hotel but as an apartment building – low-cost apartments, one room, no kitchen. The building was bought by a developer with big plans to renovate and convert to more expensive housing, so the tenants had to leave. Kathy Dour was one of them.
KATHY DOUR: We don’t have a place to go yet. We’re just standing in the wind right now, just waiting.
KELLY: Will James reported this story to the KNKX member station as Kathy Dour and the other residents lost their homes and struggled to find new ones. And Will kept wondering what happened next. Will James, welcome.
WILLIAM JAMES, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Hey. Take us right back to the beginning, I guess, to that night. It was October 31, Halloween 2018. It was the last night people were allowed to stay in the building. How was it ?
JAMES: I was standing in the lobby with some of the remaining tenants that night, and it was a really tense scene. People crowded into the hall a bit. And what I remember is walking around and asking people, you know, you have a few hours left until that deadline. Where are you going? What are you going to do tonight? What are you going to do in a few hours? And people still didn’t know, there were only hours left in their rooms. And that’s when it became clear to me that – I had covered roaming on the west coast for several years at that time, but I had never watched homelessness happen. produce in real time. And it became clear at that point that this is what I was seeing.
KELLY: Hmm. What kind of people lived in the building?
JAMES: These were people who had many of the same issues as the people we see living on the streets of the West Coast. Some of them had a history of substance use such as heroin. Some had criminal records. At least one woman had such a severe mental illness that she had difficulty communicating with social workers who were trying to help her. Almost everyone in the building was surviving on disability benefits in the order of $ 750 a month, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. And almost everyone in that building had spent time homeless before moving into the Merkle Hotel. A resident called it the last stop before the mission, which is the local shelter, and the first stop on the way.
KELLY: One of the other people you spoke to called it a cut above roaming, like a …
KELLY: … Step above. What was life like there?
JAMES: The building has been totally neglected by its previous owner. Bed bugs therefore infested the building for years. A resident told me when he moved in in 2006 that he woke up to find cockroaches crawling all over him. It really wasn’t a good place to live. In fact, it was a terrible place to live, and no one who lived there looks back fondly on it. But they say it was their last foot in this city, Tacoma, which had become, like many cities on the West Coast, unbelievably, unbelievably expensive over the years.
KELLY: Alright, so let’s go quickly three years until today. You tried to figure out what happened to all those people who were in the lobby that night and were forced out – Kathy Doer, who we heard at the top say she didn’t have a place where to go. What did you learn about what happened to him?
JAMES: Yeah. When I got started on this, I had no idea what I was going to find. And Kathy was one of the people I was really trying to find because she told me in 2018 that she was nervous about leaving because she needed a van to take her. to dialysis appointments three times a week, and she had to provide an address for that van service. I couldn’t really find it anywhere in the public records. And so I finally contacted her younger brother, who told me that Kathy had been homeless after leaving the Merkle Hotel. She started to miss dialysis appointments. She took a cab for some, but must have missed others. And shortly after leaving the building, she collapsed in a bank in Tacoma, ended up in the hospital, and eight months after leaving that building, she was dead. And she was only the first.
KELLY: Yeah. What about the rest? What happened to everyone?
JAMES: So of the 12 people I found, half, six people, spent at least some time homeless after leaving the Merkle Hotel, and almost half died. Five of the former tenants died in just three years after leaving the building.
JAMES: Yeah. It is striking. And many of those tenants were in poor health. You know, a lot of them were on disability for various reasons. But there is research that shows that the stress and harshness of unstable housing and homelessness can hasten someone’s death, can make someone’s health worse. People are starting to miss doctor’s appointments. They’re a lot less likely to get tested or screened, and maintaining chronic disease becomes really, really difficult. And that’s what we saw in the case of Kathy Dour, according to her brother. Of the five people who died, I found causes of death for four of them, and they were all due to chronic disease or cancer.
KELLY: And I just want to be very careful and intentional. You didn’t draw lines. You’re not in a position to relate these deaths directly to being moved for the building, but you say it’s such a reminder that people like this have – had no net. security. This was their last fulcrum.
JAMES: That’s exactly it.
KELLY: The developer who bought the building – it’s a man named Eli Moreno. What is he saying?
JAMES: He says when he bought the building it was in terrible shape, and he’s right. The living conditions there were terrible. And he says the only way to fix this building was to relocate residents and make major repairs throughout the building. He also underlines the actions he has taken to facilitate this trip for tenants. Under pressure, he granted them two one-month extensions and provided them with $ 500 each in relocation assistance. And also, it should be noted that the city mobilized and also helped. But what my reporting showed was that, you know, extra, one-time cash payments and even logistical help, to navigate the housing market, did very little for people with mismatched incomes. at the cost of housing.
KELLY: I want to bring one more voice. He’s one of the tenants you’ve located, found. It’s Al Bari. He managed to find accommodation, but he told you how very frustrated he was that there was no plan to house them, to move them.
AL BARI: It’s just devastating, though. It’s just hard. It didn’t have to be that way. What would have been nice was that they already had a property already set up so we could even move.
KELLY: Will James, your story raises so many questions, but I guess I want to land on this one. What do these people’s stories tell us about the housing crisis, about the challenge of homelessness in cities like Tacoma, like Seattle, and across the country?
JAMES: Homelessness has become the most prominent public policy issue in many cities on the West Coast. This is the dominant question. It is something that we see every day, those of us who live on the West Coast. The Merkle is a reminder that at one point in the history of our city there were places where the poorest people, even people with serious problems like substance use or long criminal records or mental illness, could live inside. They could hang on to housing. The driving forces behind the rise in homelessness on the West Coast are complex and few in number. But the Merkle points out that much of it is these places that are disappearing.
KELLY: Will James with our KNKX member station, thank you.
JAMES: Thanks, Mary Louise.
(EXTRACT FROM BONOBO FEAT. “THE KEEPER” BY ANDREYA TRIANA “)
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