If there’s one word to describe the carrot-and-stick or tough-love side of Tacoma’s approach to its continuing homelessness crisis, that’s it.
A ban on public camping, approved by the City Council last year, is supposed to give the city enforcement leverage it hasn’t had in the past. Ideally, it would help persuade people experiencing homelessness to use one of the city’s shelters, with the threat of criminal citation as motivation.
So what happens when those shelters are full, as is usually the case? The ban just becomes pointless, ineffective and cruel. Laws prohibiting life-sustaining activities like sleeping or seeking shelter — when there’s nowhere else for people to go — hurt more than they help, often making it more difficult for people to escape homelessness. They also raise plenty of legal questions.
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That’s why it’s time for the City Council — which now has a new mayor and three new members — to do away with the misguided camping ban.
The sooner the better.
Last week, we got the latest example of the city’s floundering approach. It played out on Hilltop, where a makeshift encampment of a dozen or so tents popped up near an empty lot at South 10th and South J streets. The juxtaposition of the camp next door to an upscale cocktail bar was perhaps fitting, as Hilltop evolves and grapples with the pressures of gentrification.
The encampment, which in the weeks before had been located blocks away on three lots on South M Street, was quickly cleared. Armed with a trespass-authorization letter from the property owner, police shooed folks away.
By Thursday, many of the same people had moved … about a block away. More than 10 tents had been set up on a lot on South J Street, behind the vacant Rite Aid.
So it goes. And who knows? By the time you read this, the encampment might have been pushed to yet another grassy, unkempt patch on Hilltop.
“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture. Our reality is we have a serious homeless problem,” Hilltop City Councilman Keith Blocker told The News Tribune last week.
“The city of Tacoma is investing millions of dollars to address it, and still the resources that we have are not enough for everybody. That’s just the harsh reality of what we’re facing right now.”
A harsh reality is right. So, while we’re being blunt, let’s cut to the chase: The city of Tacoma has criminalized homelessness with its ban on public camping.
City officials have repeatedly told me that’s not what they are doing. I get the sense they truly believe it.
But with shelters and the city’s own Dome District transition site full, there’s really no other way to describe it.
Over the last year, Tacoma has made progress that’s worth recognizing in the way it responds to its part of the regional homelessness crisis.
First, the city publicly acknowledged its past missteps and has worked to find a new way to do things. That’s not always easy for a city to do, so credit where credit’s due.
City leaders also have put money where their mouths are. Blocker is right — millions of dollars have been dedicated to the cause.
Most importantly, the creation of the Dome District transition site has been a welcome addition. While everyone knew the last step — finding and creating permanent housing options to help people move out of the transition site — would be the most difficult part, more than 80 individuals who were previously sleeping on Tacoma’s streets now have a safe place to stay at night.
Still, for all the positives and reason for optimism, Tacoma’s camping public ban is an embarrassing blemish, evidence of good intentions gone awry.
When Tacoma’s camping ban was passed, the city attorney’s office took great pains to note that it was “limited in scope, breadth, and duration.”
It’s time to end it.
Perhaps the most telling moment in all of this was revealed by Shannon Southland, one of the people moved along in the city’s crackdown on the Hilltop camp.
When asked about the city’s Dome District transition site — which is where she’d go, presumably, if the system was operating as intended — Southland said she’s on the wait list.
There’s no room for her.