Who gets in if Tacoma imposes background checks at emergency homeless shelters?

Trespassing homeless on Hilltop vacant lot asked to leave

In three days, a homeless camp sprouted in the middle of the Hilltop business district. The owner of the property, an empty lot at South 10th and South J Streets, signed a trespass authorization letter requiring they leave.
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In three days, a homeless camp sprouted in the middle of the Hilltop business district. The owner of the property, an empty lot at South 10th and South J Streets, signed a trespass authorization letter requiring they leave.

The Tacoma City Council is wrestling with whether to allow people with nonviolent criminal records, including low-level sex offenders, to live in temporary camps it hopes local churches and other nonprofits might open to help the city deal with its homelessness crisis.

At least two council members, Ryan Mello and Chris Beale, have said prohibiting people with any sort of criminal record would hurt efforts to get homeless folks shelter.

"What I'm about to say might be controversial," Mello said during a recent council discussion on proposed rules governing temporary shelters. "But I think there is a real difference between levels of sex offenders. I get this can become a political hot potato, but I think nuances matter."

Associated Ministries director Michael Yoder said an exception for sex offenders, no matter their perceived dangerousness, might make religious groups squeamish about wanting to run a shelter.

"If in order to participate with an emergency shelter a congregation would have to accept Level 1 sex offenders in their church facility, I could imagine that would be a pretty big stumbling block for a lot of congregations," Yoder said.

The discussion comes as the City Council crafts rules for temporary homeless camps. The council is expected to vote on final regulations Tuesday, April 3.

The emergency shelters would operate differently than the tent city site in the Dome District or the handful of permanent shelters around Tacoma.

Among the proposed rules:

They could be run by religious groups, nonprofits or government entities.

They could only operate for about six months at a time.

There could be a maximum of six shelters at any one time, and they would have to be spread across Tacoma's four police sectors.

Children under 18 would be allowed with a guardian, and up to 100 people could stay at each shelter.

People seeking to live there would be required to undergo background checks.

Mello and Beale said they're concerned the background checks could lead to the exclusion of people with misdemeanor convictions or non-violent offenses. Like the general population, many homeless people have something on their criminal record — which might have kept them from getting a job or housing — but they still need shelter.

"What ability do we have to tell a religious organization, to say, 'You can't exclude people with a marijuana felony, but people with a violent felony or sex offenders can be excluded,'" Beale said during a council study session. "Some felonies probably shouldn't be excludable offenses."

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Mello took that sentiment a step further and said he plans to propose an amendment that would ban Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders from the emergency shelters but allow Level 1 offenders. Level 1 sex offenders are deemed by the state as the lowest risk to the community and the least likely to re-offend.

An early draft of his amendment also would ban individuals with a prior conviction for a violent felony, including but not limited to murder, manslaughter, rape, assault, robbery, arson, kidnapping and domestic violence.

Mello said he wants to balance the safety and security of the shelter population and the surrounding community without creating more obstacles for a group of people who already face discrimination regularly.

"We're trying to limit barriers so that more people can get served in a humane, dignified way and not creating more barriers and more opportunities for discrimination against a population that already has immense barriers in their life and already face lots of discrimination," he said.

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Yoder has been closely following the city's shelter ordinance since it was first passed as an interim measure last fall. He said he could foresee concern from faith groups who might consider running a shelter about allowing Level 1 sex offenders to stay there.

Unlike some nonprofits and social service providers with experience and training in helping the homeless, church activities are often run by volunteers with no such experience, Yoder said. It might be helpful for service providers to pair up with churches in those cases.

"I certainly understand the need for trying to include the ability for people at the Level 1 (status) to have some services, because they do face a lot of barriers, and they are very vulnerable within the community — a lot of them can't find services or aren't welcome in many places," he said.

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The debate comes at a time when the city is trying to recruit help from the private sector to address homelessness.

The will and enthusiasm among religious groups to step up and help the Tacoma community is there, Yoder said. As an example: Attendance at a quarterly meeting of members of Pierce County congregations who gather to brainstorm ways to address the homelessness crisis is growing with each meeting.

Realistically, Yoder said, the financial and logistical planning needed for a church to stand up a shelter takes time. In January, Bethlehem Baptist Church on Tacoma's Eastside said it would be opening its doors to shelter families in its gym. City officials said at a presentation to the council last week that they expect groups to apply to run shelters once the permanent rules are codified.

"It's good to be needed. It's good to be recognized and say, 'Hey, we see you can do more, and we want it to be easier for you to do more,'" Yoder said. "I think the call has been placed out there. The city needs us. The city wants us to be part of the solution. They're trying to move toward us and make it easier."

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud