Council extends camping ban, approves $1.9 million more for tent city amid homelessness crisis

With the homelessness crisis persisting, the Tacoma City Council voted this week to ban public camping for another year and spend another $1.9 million to continue operating its tent city-like transition site.

“I think this is a prudent extension to continue what I think was always everyone on this body’s goal: to make sure we were trying to not allow anyone to have to sleep on the streets, to make sure they were availing themselves of our transition center in the hopes they could find long-term stability in whatever was causing them to be on the streets in the first place,” said Councilman Robert Thoms at Tuesday’s meeting.

The council on Tuesday then voted unanimously to extend its emergency declaration on homeless until the end of 2018.

The council also voted to extend two measures seen as part of the “push and pull” of mitigating the impacts of homelessness on those living on the streets, and on residents and businesses. It extended until the end of 2018 its ban on public camping and also its contract with Catholic Community Services to run the homeless stability site in the Dome District that the city established this summer. That contract is now worth a total of $2.8 million.

“This is a continuation of the state of emergency,” City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said. “We’re asking council to extend this based on our assessment that conditions of homelessness in the city remain a state of emergency.”

The original state of emergency declaration, approved in May, was extended in October to last until the end of this year.

This spring the city came up with a three-phased approach to try to reduce homelessness and the suffering of those experiencing it. First, it embarked on cleaning up homeless encampments across the city. Second, it created the tent-city like stability site, which regularly houses about 80 people each week and helps connect them to services and, hopefully, housing. Third, it began working on options for finding longer-term housing for the homeless.

The law against public camping, which essentially banned homeless encampments except for in places where they’re permitted — such as the stability site in the Dome District — has been in place since July. According to Tacoma Police Assistant Chief Shawn Gustason, 584 camps have been cleaned up since July, and 185 people have been issued warnings for public camping. Gustason said 42 people have been given citations.

Critics have warned that the law banning public camping criminalizes homelessness and is unconstitutional, especially because shelters and the city’s stability site are typically full with waiting lists, so homeless people might have no place to go.

Thoms said police officers sometimes take homeless people who are found to be camping unlawfully to the tent city site to try to find them a place to stay for the night or connect them to services. The plan is to grow capacity at that site going forward, he said.

“The homeless outreach team has responsibly used the ordinance as an effective deterrent to gain mainly voluntary compliance while mitigating health and safety hazards associated with illegal encampments,” Gustason told the council Tuesday. “The extension of the ordinance will allow the homeless outreach team to continue with those efforts.”

Last week, the City Council passed midway adjustments to its 2017-18 budget that will allow the police department to hire four new positions — three patrol officers and a sergeant — to work permanently on the homeless outreach team, at a cost of $1 million.

It also approved almost $1.6 million for a “readiness site” for those who are ready to transition into more independent types of housing. In October, the city said it was negotiating to buy the former Calico Cat motel in South Tacoma to house 20 to 28 working or work-ready homeless folks.

The city says the Dome District stability site is doing its job of transitioning people into housing, though Pauli acknowledged it’s happening slowly.

According to a staff memo, 88 people lived at the site as of Nov. 22 , and 50 developed housing-stability plans, gotten a housing referral or were enrolled in a housing program. The city said 23 people have transitioned from the stability site to housing, and that the site continues to operate at near capacity.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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