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Police are using new ordinances to ticket people camping in public or sleeping in cars

Homelessness is an issue in Tacoma and other Pierce County cities. This is one of many campsites along the Puyallup River in Puyallup in August that was targeted for removal by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Homelessness is an issue in Tacoma and other Pierce County cities. This is one of many campsites along the Puyallup River in Puyallup in August that was targeted for removal by the Washington State Department of Transportation. jbessex@gateline.com

In a little over two months since two new laws went into effect, Tacoma police have written dozens of citations and issued hundreds of warnings to people camping in public or sleeping in their cars.

In July, the Tacoma City Council adopted a pair of ordinances meant to curb homeless camps and car camping as part of an effort to combat what city officials have called a crisis of homelessness.

The goal of the ordinances is to reduce the impacts of homelessness on residential areas and business districts.

Since the laws were enacted, the Tacoma Police Department has issued 28 citations for public camping and 37 citations for violations of the new car-camping rules, according to statistics available Tuesday.

Before July, there was no law against public camping in Tacoma, and the city had no enforcement tool that would dissuade people who were moved along by officials from setting up somewhere else. The new law essentially bans homeless encampments except where they’re specifically allowed.

The other law cut back from seven days to 72 hours the amount of time people can camp in one spot in their cars. That law also requires people to move one mile away after that amount of time to reduce the impact of car camping on certain neighborhoods where it’s prevalent.

The new car camping law also comes with escalating fines. The first fine for violating the rules is $50, the second is $100, and three or more would result in a fine of $250.

In addition to 37 citations for violations of the car camping law, the owners of 343 vehicles have been warned since July, the city reported.

Critics have warned that the law banning public camping criminalizes homelessness and is unconstitutional. When a jurisdiction fails to provide adequate options for shelter and then criminalizes things that homeless people need to do to survive, like sleeping, it could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of that person’s Eighth Amendment rights, civil-rights advocates have said..

With the city’s shelters regularly at capacity with waiting lists, there might not be any place indoors for the homeless in Tacoma to go.

The pair of ordinances are in effect until Tacoma’s current emergency homelessness declaration expires on Oct. 9.

A state of emergency related to what Mayor Marilyn Strickland has called a homelessness crisis was declared by the City Council in May, and the council has called the problem a growing public-health issue.

The city has since enacted a three-phased approach to combating homelessness that’s currently in its second phase: The opening of a so-called “stability site” that’s been likened to a tent city. That facility is housing more than 80 homeless people, connecting them with resources and addressing issues that could be barriers to finding permanent housing for them.

The site is at capacity with a lengthy waiting list, according to city officials.

The third phase of the overall plan — finding permanent, supportive housing for the city’s homeless — has hit a bottleneck and is still being developed. Finding enough and the right type of housing to support people who will be moving out of phase 2 has been challenging, city staff has said.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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