It’s been over a year since the Tacoma City Council passed land use regulations paving the way for temporary homeless camps — or tent cities — here in the City of Destiny.
In that time — a few days shy of 15 months — not one tent city has materialized.
That fact deserves revisiting in light of the recent discussion about how best to connect Tacoma’s homeless population with vital services and shelter.
The conversation, in large part, was spurred by the reaction to those sizable rocks over by the downtown library, placed there by a city trying to rid a problem area of the symptoms of chronic street homelessness – human waste, drug paraphernalia, garbage and low-level criminal activity.
Last week, the discussion moved inside, to the Metropolitan Development Council’s Fawcett Avenue facility. Billed as a “community conversation,” a modest group of service providers and community members gathered to start the process of moving Tacoma beyond the rocks and rancor.
One of the folks on hand was Tacoma Human Services Manager Pamela Duncan, who ran through the same PowerPoint presentation given to the City Council last month after the media (read: me) and some of the public questioned the message sent by the rocks.
The presentation focuses on the complexity of the issue, highlighting the scope of the homelessness problem in Tacoma, everything the city does to combat it, and the areas where this substantial investment of time, money and resources falls short.
Duncan specifically mentioned Tacoma’s Temporary Homeless Camps Ordinance, which amended city code, zoning and land use procedures to establish a permitting process and develop standards for tent cities on property “owned or controlled” by religious organizations. So far, she said, no group has taken advantage of it.
The need exists. The 2015 Homeless Point in Time count, conducted in late January, revealed a total of 1,283 homeless individuals in Pierce County, with 191 counted as chronically homeless. Tacoma’s six homeless shelters, meanwhile, struggle to keep up. Every night dozens of people seeking shelter are turned away.
Tent cities are an imperfect solution, of course. In fact, they’re more of a concession. If we can’t house or provide shelter for all the people experiencing homelessness in Tacoma, we might as well offer more temporary answers for giving homeless a safe place to stay at night. At the very least, a tent city would make outreach efforts easier, while allowing the homeless to stay on church-owned land beats the alternative.
So what’s the hang up? According to a grassroots group known as Tent City Tacoma, there are two main hurdles.
For one, Tacoma’s tent city ordinance requires the site to move every three months. That means at least four religious organizations with land to offer are needed to ensure a full year of service.
According to Tent City Tacoma members Bud Nye and Neal Rogers, that’s proven to be a particularly tall task. While one local church — Bethlehem Lutheran on Tacoma’s East Side — has signaled an openness to potentially hosting a tent city, no other willing participants have been identified.
No church wants to go first, they say, because Tent City Tacoma is untested. And — more important — no church wants to risk going last and being forced to ask tent city campers to get off their land once the three-month window expires and there’s nowhere else lined up.
Bethlehem Lutheran congregation vice president John Nygard confirms that his church has been “amenable” to the idea, provided the congregation votes to OK it and the surrounding community, through public meetings, signs off on it.
In other words, it’s far from a done deal.
“The bugs are not worked out, and (churches) don’t want to be the ones that have to kick out tent city,” Rogers tells me. “They’re perfectly reasonable concerns to me.”
Then there’s the money. As Tacoma city planner John Harrington confirms, each tent city location requires a $1,500 permit fee. That’s potentially as much as $6,000 for one year, if four locations are identified.
For a grassroots outfit like Tent City Tacoma, it’s far from chump change, especially when you figure in the costs of running a sanctioned encampment, like sanitation and garbage removal.
Rogers calls some of Tacoma’s tent city requirements “a bit extreme.” But that’s not to say Tent City Tacoma is ready to throw in the towel.
Rather, they’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation of their own, with plans in place to take the show on the road and start making their case to local churches — an effort Nye says should start shortly.
Will it help?
“I’m very optimistic that this is going to hit the ground and we’re going to be able to live up to what we’re trying to,” Rogers tells me.
It certainly couldn’t hurt.