Tacoma city officials need 400 shelter spaces in advance of a ban on tents in parks set to go into effect Dec. 1.
The ordinance, passed by the Tacoma City Council at the beginning of October, prohibits structures with walls in Tacoma parks. There is already a ban on camping overnight in parks.
Structures without walls will still be permitted in parks during the day. That’s in part because police need a warrant to enter a tent or an enclosed shelter. Structures that provide shade but lack walls are easier to police.
The ban is part of an update of the rules that govern its parks, said Hunter George, chief communications and public affairs officer for Metro Parks Tacoma, the independent organization that runs parks in the city. The code had not been updated for a decade and was reformed to include bans on things like drones and vaping, products that didn’t exist the last time that city officials revisited it.
The decision to prohibit tents was attributed to public safety. Calls to respond to crimes like drug dealing, drug use and sex work have all gone up, George said.
“We maintain the parks, but we don’t have any enforcement staff — that’s not what we do,” George said. “We were getting an increasing number of calls and complaints about negative activities and that people didn’t feel safe to use certain parks.”
The new ban comes right as the season changes, becoming colder, wetter and more dangerous for people who are forced to survive outside and can’t, or won’t, access traditional shelter.
At the public meeting held Oct. 1, the majority of people spoke out against the ban. Some suggested that service providers had not been consulted when the new rules were devised.
“I learned about it when the local newspaper reported on it,” said Duke Paulson, executive director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, one of the largest providers of shelter services in Tacoma.
The mission tries to pack in as many people as it can, especially on freezing nights, Paulson said, but that won’t be enough to satisfy the new requirements that the city is hoping to meet.
In a memo responding to questions about the new rule from the City Council, Metro Parks Tacoma said there was no intentional effort to exclude service providers from weighing in on the new rule. A public comment period ran from Aug. 7 to Aug. 28, although Metro Parks Tacoma continued to accept and review comments through Sept. 21 for a total of six weeks.
Right now, it’s unclear where the additional shelter stock will come from. The city is working with faith-based organizations, nonprofits and community stakeholders to identify temporary shelter sites, wrote Megan Snow, communication specialist with the city of Tacoma, in an email.
However, while the city is pushing for those stakeholders to come together, there is no “specific date, time or location for the convening” because the contract is still underway, Snow wrote.
The ban was crafted with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision Boise v. Martin in mind. The judges that decided the Martin case found that the city of Boise couldn’t enforce an outright ban on surviving outside unless it had a place for people to go. It was a landmark decision with ripple effects through the entire region.
But forcing people into situations that are less safe and secure isn’t just a legal issue but also an ineffective way to deal with homelessness, said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
“Even if you think a carrot-and-stick approach works, it can’t work if you have a stick and no carrot,” Bauman said.
Responding to complaints about homelessness in parks with new laws and police presence is an expensive strategy that ultimately doesn’t get at the root causes of homelessness, Bauman said.
“You can’t end homelessness by punishing it,” Bauman said. “Attempts to do that are wastes of time and energy and create a lot of harm.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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