It was cold the afternoon of Nov. 23 in Tacoma. People huddled in tents filling the strip of grass between the sidewalk at People’s Park and South L Street. They were not in the park, but not outside it, either.
And yet, after a shooting in the park, Tacoma’s City Council passed an ordinance banning structures with walls from parks in early October. It was not a “tent ban,” officials said, although it was crafted with Martin v. Boise, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision for the 9th Circuit requiring municipalities to offer people shelter before sweeping them, in mind.
Enforcement was predicated on the availability of 400 new shelter spaces to take in the people displaced by the new ordinance.
That’s little comfort to Ben, a homeless veteran who has been outside for years. Smoke from a nearby grill cooking hotdogs courtesy of a local organization engulfed Ben as he talked about his experience of homelessness and his concern about the new law.
“Nobody wants to be homeless,” Ben said. “Some people get the idea that it’s a choice. It’s not a choice. Everybody wants to have a home to go to.”
Right now, People’s Park is that home for Ben and his community. It’s far from easy — Ben has had all of his possessions taken in February 2019 when it was snowing and extremely difficult to survive.
Ben and the community of people who live in the park are likely safe, at least for now, due to a continued lack of resources.
City officials reached out to the faith community to open up new spaces for people experiencing homelessness. Only two are even close to receiving the permits necessary to host a shelter.
It takes up to six weeks to get the necessary permissions, and none have yet opened, said Rob Huff, communications director for the Metropolitan Development Council, an organization working with the Ministerial Alliance to create the new shelter beds.
“The goal is to find spaces for everyone, and the city has used the 400 number,” Huff said. “The process we’re working through doesn’t ultimately have a limit on how many spaces we have for temporary shelter.”
Camping in parks is already illegal in the city of Tacoma. This new ban explicitly prohibits structures with walls, meaning that while tents will be banned, structures with roofs but without walls — like “EZ” up tents — will be allowed. The idea is that it’s easier for police to see illegal activity without a search warrant. Washington courts have previously found was required after a 2017 decision involving a homeless man named William Pippin.
Police found methamphetamine in Pippin’s tent, but judges threw out the charge because they found that Pippin had an expectation of privacy in his tent, as any person would have in their house.
Courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of people experiencing homelessness as cities have attempted to restrict activities like panhandling, sitting on the sidewalk and camping in public spaces.
Bans on camping have begun sprouting up in Washington, with communities like Lacey, Spokane Valley and Longview restricting when people can put up tents in public spaces.
Tacoma has committed to finding a place for people to go before it enforces its structure ban.
Tacoma is open to new ways to bring people experiencing homelessness inside. The city has decided to embrace the tiny house village model. One site, at 8th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is a block from People’s Park and will house dozens of people experiencing homelessness. Construction at the site started Nov. 26.
There will be a place for people living in the park there, said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, the nonprofit that is standing up the village.
“We have a contract with the city and the priority is to move people from People’s Park with the understanding that people will have to agree to the code of conduct to participate,” Lee said.
People surviving outside in Tacoma do not share the optimism that the city will find suitable places for them to go.
Mike has been homeless for two years and was staying in People’s Park at the end of October.
“It’s not right,” Mike said of the ban.
Mike keeps the area around his tent clear of debris and moves when he’s told to. Sometimes he doesn’t know which municipality he’s in, making it hard to keep up with the changing rules. Either way, he tries to be on the right side of the law, but it’s hard, and all the public use laws bring unwanted attention.
“Cops need to stop harassing homeless people,” Mike said.
Tacoma will continue to search for new shelter spaces. The city already put up a large tent that allows people to bring the “three Ps” meaning pets, partners and possessions.
Officials are doubling down. The City Council passed an ordinance on Nov. 19 declaring a public health emergency until 95 percent of unhoused people in the city had shelter.
That’s what Vaughn Snoddy Jr., a Real Change vendor living in Tacoma, wants.
“If they want to actually do something for us, they should open more shelters,” Snoddy said. “At least.”
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.
Read the full Dec. 4 - 10 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.