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Tacoma's temporary homeless shelters will require background checks, be able to run for a year

Homeless count in Pierce County reveals sharp increase

Data from the annual Point-In-Time homeless count in Pierce County shows that 1628 people were living on the streets or in shelters on a given night in January 2018, an increase of 300 more individuals than last year.
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Data from the annual Point-In-Time homeless count in Pierce County shows that 1628 people were living on the streets or in shelters on a given night in January 2018, an increase of 300 more individuals than last year.

Temporary shelters now have a permanent place in Tacoma's municipal code.

The City Council on Tuesday approved permanent regulations that will allow nonprofits and churches to run temporary shelters to help the city address what it has called a homelessness crisis.

Those rules provide for a maximum of six shelters across the city, and they have to be spread across each of Tacoma's four police sectors. The shelters will be able to run for six months, can have a maximum of 100 residents, will allow children under 18 with a parent or guardian and will require that residents undergo background checks and screenings for warrants. No sex offenders will be permitted as shelter residents.

The council passed a modified version of its original regulations Tuesday that will allow shelters to extend their time for up to another six months — to operate for up to a year total — if they meet certain conditions and have operated in harmony with the neighborhood and community groups around the shelter.

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"The time extension would allow for an additional 180 days, up to 365 days, and that process would be checked every 45 days at minimum," said Councilman Chris Beale, who brought the substitute ordinance.

"Every 45 days the department director of planning and development services would check that that process is still going well ... the upfront costs born by our community partners in setting up these temporary encampments could potentially be not worth it if the encampments are not set up long enough, and we heard a lot of comments related to good actors and making sure we’re not re-traumatizing people by moving them around every few months."

Some amendments were noteworthy by their absence.

Councilman Ryan Mello has expressed concern about banning the lowest-level sex offenders from these shelters, and Beale has said requiring background checks might exclude people who have committed minor, non-violent offenses from seeking shelter.

On Tuesday, neither brought forward amendments to address those concerns as they had been expected to do. Both said they hope the community conversation around those concerns will continue and said they didn't want to create additional barriers for faith groups or nonprofits who may want to apply to run shelters.

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"Despite my belief that the amendment is the right course of action, I want to ensure we have the ability to have really good quality conversations with our partners and potential partners before we adjust such an element," Mello said. "We have a lot of work to do in this community, and I believe strongly in not perpetuating the myths that homeless people are criminals, and that all sex offenders are dangerous or likely to re-offend."

Beale echoed some of what Mello said when he announced he also wouldn't be offering an amendment on background checks after hearing concerns from the religious community.

"From the standpoint of low-level criminal offenses and making sure that folks who are experiencing homelessness are served by these type of facilities, that really resonates with me — I have family members who have felonies," Beale said. "So while I do have a lot of compassion and do feel very strongly about this issue, I don't want to create barriers for our partners in the faith-based community in providing service for these folks."

Since temporary regulations for the shelters were passed last fall, one church — Bethlehem Baptist on Tacoma's Eastside — has begun operating a shelter for homeless families in its gym.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud
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