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Tenants at risk of homelessness were evicted from a building. Here's what happened

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three years ago, the last remaining residents of the Merkle Hotel in Tacoma, Wash., were teetering on the edge of disaster, of homelessness. The Merkle Hotel, you see, was not operating as a hotel but an apartment building - low-rent apartments, one room, no kitchen. The building was purchased by a developer with big plans to renovate and convert it 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 on this story for member station KNKX 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: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. Take us back just to the beginning, I guess, to that night. This was October 31, Halloween 2018. This was the last night that people were allowed to stay in the building. What was it like?

JAMES: I was standing in the lobby with some of the remaining tenants that night, and it was a really tense scene. People were kind of milling around in the lobby. And what I remember is walking around and asking people, you know, you have a few hours left before this deadline. Where are you going to go? What are you going to do tonight? What are you going to do in a few hours? And people still didn't know, with just hours left to stay in their rooms. And that's when it became clear to me that - I had covered homelessness on the West Coast for several years at that point, but I had never watched homelessness happening in real time. And it became clear at that moment that that's what I was seeing.

KELLY: Hmm. What kind of people lived in the building?

JAMES: These were people who had many of the same problems that people we see living on the streets on the West Coast have. Some of them had histories of using substances like heroin. Some had criminal records. At least one woman had such severe mental illness, she had trouble communicating with the caseworkers who were trying to help her. Almost everyone in the building survived on disability payments of - in the ballpark 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. One resident called it the last stop before the Mission, which is the local shelter, and the first step on the way up.

KELLY: One of the other people you talked to called it a step above homelessness, like one...

JAMES: Hmm.

KELLY: ...Step above. What was living there like?

JAMES: The building was totally neglected by its prior owner. So bedbugs infested the building for years. One resident told me about when he moved in, in 2006, waking up to find cockroaches crawling all over him. It really was not a great place to live. In fact, it was a really bad place to live, and nobody who lived there looks back on it fondly. But they say it was their last foothold in this city, Tacoma, that had gotten, like many West Coast cities, incredibly, incredibly expensive over the years.

KELLY: All right, so let's fast-forward three years to the present. You've been trying to figure out what happened to all those people who were in the lobby that night who were forced out - Kathy Doer, who we heard at the top saying she didn't have a place to go. What did you learn about what happened to her?

JAMES: Yeah. When I set out on this, I had no idea what I would find. And Kathy was one of the people I was really trying to track down because she told me back 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 needed to provide an address to that van service. I really couldn't find her anywhere in the public records. And so I eventually got in touch with her younger brother, who told me that Kathy did spend time homeless after leaving the Merkle Hotel. She started to miss dialysis appointments. She took a cab to some but had to just sort of miss others. And shortly after she left the building, she collapsed in a bank in Tacoma, ended up in the hospital, and eight months after she left that building, she was dead. And she was only the first.

KELLY: Yeah. What about the rest? What happened to everybody else?

JAMES: So of the 12 people I tracked down, half, six people, spent at least some time homeless after leaving the Merkle Hotel, and nearly half died. Five of the former tenants died in just three years after leaving the building.

KELLY: Wow.

JAMES: Yeah. It's striking. And a lot of those tenants were in frail health. You know, a lot of them were on disability for various reasons. But there's research that shows that the stress and the harshness of housing instability and homelessness can hasten someone's death, can worsen someone's health. People start missing doctor's appointments. They're much less likely to get checkups or screenings, and maintaining chronic illnesses gets really, really hard. And that's what we saw in Kathy Dour's case, 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 illnesses or cancer.

KELLY: And I want to just be very careful and intentional. You were not drawing lines. You're not able to directly link these deaths to being displaced for the building, but you're saying this is such a reminder that people like this have - had no safety net. This was their last foothold.

JAMES: That's exactly right.

KELLY: The developer who bought the building - this is a man named Eli Moreno. What does he say?

JAMES: He says that 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 he could fix that building was to displace the residents and make extensive repairs throughout the building. He also points to the actions he took to make that displacement easier for tenants. He did, under pressure, give them two one-month extensions, and he provided them each $500 in relocation assistance. And also, we should note that the city pitched in and helped as well. But what my reporting showed was that, you know, extra time and one-time cash payments and even logistical help, navigating the housing market, did very, very little for people whose incomes was so mismatched to the cost of housing.

KELLY: I want to bring in one more voice. This is one of the tenants who you tracked down, who you did find. This is Al Bari. He managed to find housing, but he talked to you about 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 is if they already had property already set up for us to even move to.

KELLY: Will James, your reporting 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 posed by homelessness in cities like Tacoma, like Seattle, like all over the country?

JAMES: Homelessness has risen to the highest-profile public policy issue in many West Coast cities. It is the dominant issue. It's 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 our city's histories, there were places where the poorest people, even people with serious problems like substance use or long criminal records or mental illness, they could live inside. They could hang on to housing. The driving forces of the rise of homelessness on the West Coast are complex and there are few of them. But the Merkle points to the fact that a big part of it is those places going away.

KELLY: Will James with our member station KNKX, thank you.

JAMES: Thanks, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO FEAT. ANDREYA TRIANA'S "THE KEEPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.