Tacoma to vote on law banning camping on public property (again). Advocates push back

TACOMA, Wash. — Tacoma City Council is poised to vote on a law that bans camping on public property.

It might sound familiar.

City Council passed the same law in 2017, but it quietly sun-setted at the end of 2019, several months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a pause in encampment clean-ups across the city.

Now, some Council members want the law back on the books. Council member Robert Thoms, Mayor Victoria Woodards and Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker requested the proposal be brought forward.

“This is just reiterating our belief that when and if there is capacity within our system for people to be housed and seek the services they rightfully deserve and need, that we can enforce the no-camping ordinance,” Thoms said during a Council discussion about the proposal earlier this month.

The ordinance states that “it shall be unlawful for any person to Camp within any Public Property,” and that it’s unlawful to store “personal property, including, without limitation, Camp Facilities and Camp Paraphernalia, on any Public Property.” Camping on private property is already against the law in Tacoma.

“Public property” is defined in the ordinance as all parks, piers, streets, trails, forests, park museums, pools, beaches, open spaces, public squares, public schools and associated athletic facilities, parking lots and “any other property in which the City or any other governmental entity has a property interest of any type.”

Violation of the law is a misdemeanor, with convictions resulting in a fine of no more than $1,000 or by imprisonment not to exceed 90 days, or both.

City staff say they’re not doing many clean-ups of encampments lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The city is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which encourages cities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by not clearing encampments and allowing people to remain where they are living.

The city recently cleared an encampment along East 72nd Street due to a public health risk and increasing calls for service from police near the site. Another encampment on 38th and South G Street near the former Lincoln Hardware was cleared in March.

City Council is set to vote on first reading of the no-camping ordinance on Tuesday. In conjunction with that, Council will also vote to renew its declaration of a public health emergency related to homeless encampments.

WHY NOW?

If City Council approves the camping ban, Thoms said he doesn’t anticipate it will be enforced until the city has enough capacity for people who are asked to move.

“It is my impression that we will not be enforcing during CDC protocols, and until we have adequate (shelter) capacity … I’m committed to that,” Thoms said.

He said he wants to be prepared for when they can enforce it.

“When we originally (passed the no-camping ordinance), we had less capacity, and each convening month we’ve added additional capacity for people to find shelter or pathways to stable housing,” Thoms said.

Tacoma is also beholden to a 2018 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding an no-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, in which the court ruled that it is unconstitutional to enforce camping bans if people experiencing homelessness have no other place to go.

Since first passing its declaration of emergency relating to homelessness in the city, shelter capacity in Tacoma grew from 614 temporary and permanent beds in 2017 to 871 beds in 2020, according to a presentation by city staff in February.

City Council members have indicated it’s not enough and are searching for more shelter options, including a low-barrier shelter somewhere in the city.

Council member Kristina Walker said during the discussion April 13 that she wanted to make sure the new site was set up before enforcing the ordinance.

“I just don’t want to enforce things too soon,” Walker said.

PUSHBACK AGAINST CAMPING BAN

Members of the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness approved a letter Friday asking the Council to pull the ordinance from consideration.

“While the city of Tacoma has increased shelter beds and options, the number of people experiencing homelessness dramatically exceeds current shelter capacity,” the letter stated. “A recent County estimate identified 1,350 unsheltered individuals in Pierce County, with Coalition counts showing only 40 shelter beds available county-wide.”

Coalition members asked the City Council to first establish safe and accessible camping sites for all, work with the city to determine an accurate unsheltered count in Tacoma, lead a city-wide public process to determine how to best use public property to help individuals living unsheltered, partake in completion of a Pierce County Comprehensive Plan to End Homelessness, and adopt a five-year homeless strategy.

“Again, the Coalition is committed to returning our sidewalks to places for pedestrians to walk and our parks to places to recreate,” the Coalition stated in its letter. “Neither should be places people sleep. Putting all available energy and resources into establishing enough shelter to meet the need must be the next step to returning our public spaces to their intended use. The homelessness emergency will not end with enforcement; it will end with Safe Sites for All and permanent housing.”

Advocacy groups Tacoma Housing Now, Sunrise Tacoma, Our Revolution Pierce County and Tacoma & Pierce County Democratic Socialists of America denounced the proposal in a news release on Monday.

Tacoma Housing Now demanded the Council pull the ordinance or said it would “set up camp on public property on Tuesday night,” location and time to be determined.

Despite Council members saying they’ll wait until after there’s adequate shelter and removal of CDC encampment clearing guidelines to enforce the ordinance, some advocates don’t trust it.

Tacoma & Pierce County Democratic Socialists of America said in a statement the new law would “only bring more sweeps” of homeless encampments.

“Camping bans have no place in our city when there’s nowhere permanent to go,” according to the news release. “We told you this in 2019 with the Metro Parks tent ban and calling for the sunsetting of the prior camping ban. No matter what platitudes you include in your proposal, camping bans criminalize homelessness. Bans will not solve our crisis, but only cause violence.”

This story was originally published at The News Tribune.