The city of Tacoma began enforcing a controversial new rule that prohibits structures with walls in public parks on Jan. 7, forcing nearly two dozen campers to move along or accept offers of shelter.
Officials helped 12 people access shelter during “the final transition” that Tuesday, said Megan Snow, a spokesperson for the city.
“We’ve been waiting and delaying the parks code enforcement portion until we had shelter space available for people who were living in that space,” Snow said.
The city has been tracking open shelter beds within the system to ensure that there were enough places that served the people still residing in the park before enforcing the ordinance, she said.
After the campers moved out, Metro Parks Tacoma — the entity that runs the city’s parks — closed People’s Park for cleaning, a process that was estimated to take the rest of the week.
The Tacoma chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America spoke out against the cleanup in a press release, saying that it was taking place just ahead of a wind- and rainstorm.
“Housing advocates from the Tacoma & Pierce County Democratic Socialists of America (TDSA) deem this planned sweep not only inhumane, but also unconstitutional,” the press release reads, referencing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case Martin v. Boise, which puts guardrails on when a local government can force campers to move.
The Tacoma City Council voted to approve the new rule in October 2019. The vote came after a shooting in People’s Park and concerns from local police that they could not effectively patrol the area because they could not see into campers’ tents.
Councilmembers originally chose to delay enforcement until the beginning of December and instructed officials and community partners to find new shelter spaces so that campers throughout the city would have alternative places to go.
The policy was drafted with the Martin case front of mind, said Hunter George, spokesperson for Metro Parks Tacoma, in November.
The city planned to find 400 new shelter beds to make room for unsheltered people in the city, but roughly a quarter of those spots had been identified as of press time. The Low Income Housing Institute opened 35 units in a tiny house village nearby People’s Park that was prioritized for campers living there, and the Bethlehem Baptist Church has 40 spots open specifically for families and single women. The Tacoma Rescue Mission also expanded its shelter offerings.
Opening a temporary shelter is a lengthy process, even when the host is willing. The Altheimer Church is currently going through the steps to open a 32-unit shelter for families, but it takes between four and six weeks from start to finish said Rob Huff, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Development Council, which is working with the city to open new shelters.
When the shelter at Altheimer opens, that will total 72 spaces targeted for families and single women. However, the Bethlehem Baptist shelter has yet to hit capacity, Huff said.
“It’s taken time for the word to get out,” Huff said. “We’ve been open for a couple of weeks, but we haven’t yet had all 40 beds full. We’ve been inching closer.”
It has been harder to identify space for single men, who compose the majority of people experiencing homelessness.
“We believe there is a need [for family shelter], but we recognize that there is a need for spaces for single men,” Huff said.
It’s unclear how long these shelters will be open. The code governing temporary shelters dictates that they can be open for six months with an option to extend the shelter for another six months. Those renewals can happen multiple times in succession if the hosts are still willing.
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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