Ruckus ensues over plan to ban tents in Tacoma parks. Lines drawn over safety vs. shelter

Before the homeless are told they cannot stay in tents in parks in Tacoma, they should be given an alternative place to go.

That was the message from a wave of people who spoke out at Tuesday’s City Council meeting about changes to the city’s park code. Council is expected to vote on final approval Oct. 1.

A part of the recommended changes would prohibit any walled structures in Tacoma parks, including tents. Camping overnight is already against park code.

Violations can result in a Class 1 civil infraction, with a fine of no more than $250, according to state law.

The proposed change defines a structure as any “structure or shelter, including but not limited to any temporary makeshift dwelling units, lean-tos, shacks and/or trailers, comprised of tree branches, wood, plastic, metal, nylon, tarp or any other materials.”

The new regulation is an effort to help park-goers feel safer, according to Metro Parks. Currently, police cannot enter into an enclosed structure like a tent without a search warrant.

“A lot of people feel uncomfortable and not safe in going out to some of the parks because of what they encounter with the tents, and not knowing what’s going on in the tents,” Metro Parks Commission president Aaron Pointer told City Council on Tuesday. “We’re not saying there’s illegal action going on in the tents, but we don’t know.”

Some feel the proposed regulation is misguided and would unfairly ask those living in tents to leave without specifically designating a place for them to go.

“A reasonable person would find (the ordinance) as a way to force people out of parks,” Maureen Howard, a homeless advocate with the Tacoma-Pierce County Homeless Coalition, told The News Tribune on Thursday.

‘No place for them to go’

Howard, among a dozen others, told the City Council on Tuesday that she worries where people will go when they’re told they can’t camp at the parks when most Tacoma shelters are full.

“We don’t have an answer to the question of ‘Where can I stay?’ but we’re going to tell them, ‘You can’t stay here.’ Our priorities need to be on answering the first question,” said Hilltop resident Greg Walker.

Walker is active in the Tacoma-Pierce County Homeless Coalition and is the community development entrepreneur for Cardo Community, which helps nonprofit ventures address homelessness and substance-abuse treatment.

There already isn’t enough shelter space to house all those who need it in Tacoma, Gerrit Nyland, director of client information systems for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, said during Tuesday’s public comment.

“There’s about 3,300 people that will be sleeping in their cars, on a mat, in a blanket, under an overpass and maybe in a tent in Tacoma tonight. There’s no place for them to go,” Nyland said.

“I appreciate the city’s efforts in increasing our shelter space ... And yet, I still feel like this particular rule is taking our most vulnerable community members and damaging them more,” Nyland continued.

Breaking the code will not result in arrest, said city attorney Bill Fosbre. He said the code is not criminalizing homelessness in any way.

“This violation is not a crime if it were to pass — it’s a civil infraction. It’s like a parking ticket,” Fosbre said. “...You don’t get arrested. You don’t get a criminal record. You don’t go to jail or anything like that.”

Walker worries decriminalization isn’t too far removed.

“If we keep issuing civil infractions, sooner or later it turns into a criminal infraction,” Walker said.

Mayor Victoria Woodards called for a 5-minute recess following public comment and later explained it was because “some of the things I heard from you all tonight really bothered me.”

Woodards said homelessness shouldn’t be criminalized and that’s not what the proposed changes do.

“We’re not going to ask them to leave the park, but we are going to ask them to take down the sides of their structure,” Woodards said on Tuesday.

Woodards added that they will be offered resources and that “70 percent of the people we offer services to choose not to take them.”

Howard said Thursday she felt that removing walls of a structure is not suitable protection from the elements.

“I mean, come on — we know the weather,” Howard said.

The City Council is looking into reforming the city’s temporary encampment ordinance passed in 2018, Woodards said.

“We passed an ordinance some time ago working with churches in the community who might open up space, and we have not had a lot of churches who have taken advantage of that,” Woodards said.

‘Doing nothing is not an option’

Not among the speakers on Tuesday are supporters of the park code changes — but they’re there, assured Metro Parks spokesperson Hunter George.

Tyler Stetson, a 15-year resident of Tacoma who frequents People’s Park, thanked Metro Parks for addressing safety. Overall, Stetson said Tacoma parks have been inviting and safe public spaces, but has witnessed violent assaults and fights at some encampments.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Stetson wrote in an email to Metro Parks on Wednesday. “People experiencing homelessness in our city should not be swept under the rug, yet, these encampments have become more than a nuisance of garbage and park damage.”

Tacoma Police Department Lt. Corey Darlington told The News Tribune on Thursday that the code changes would help police monitor parks in general and help park-goers feel safer. He said that most people staying in tents on park property are cooperative, law-abiding and understanding of park rules.

“A canopy is not going to provide protection from the wind and rain. Then again, the parks are not set up to be campgrounds — that’s not the purpose of parks,” Darlington said.

Tacoma Housing Authority executive director Michael Mirra also voiced support for the changes in a letter to City Council dated Sept. 8.

“THA favors the proposal because it appears necessary to end the troublesome behavior associated with the encampments in the parks,” Mirra wrote. “In particular, THA and our neighbors on the Hilltop have struggled with the behavior in the encampment at People’s Park across the street from our main building.

“However, THA’s conditions its support upon the assumption that the city will provide alternate places for people who are homeless to live, shelter, or camp.”

The letter details experiences by staff in proximity to People’s Park that involves “verbal abuse, cat calling, or aggressive begging of people entering or leaving our building” and “picking up trash, feces and debris.” The letter also mentions a fatal stabbing that occurred only days before.

Mirra urged support of affordable housing, indoor shelters, permitted tent encampment locations, tiny homes and “unstructured but legal camping in places other than parks” as part of the letter.

“In all these ways, the issue is hard,” Mirra wrote. “It requires you to find a reasonable balance of important and conflicting values and interests.”

Moving forward

Nyland told The News Tribune by email on Wednesday that CCS would like to see the ordinance postponed until there is a safe alternative or “solid work underway to create safe places with capacity for all people experiencing homelessness to live.”

Multiple speakers also asked for the city to create a task force surrounding the changes.

The city doesn’t have the time to create a task force between now and the final reading of the ordinance, which would require applications and extensive review, said Linda Stewart, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services department. Staff wants to help as soon as possible, she said.

Instead, the city is helping to facilitate a meeting between residents, service providers and those experiencing homelessness. The convening will identify potential temporary shelter locations, resources needed to operate those locations and how the city can address any challenges for churches.

City staff also are developing contracts with local agencies for shelter sites as part of the temporary shelter ordinance.

“We anticipate a contract will be brought forward to council consideration in the next couple of weeks,” Stewart said.

So far, Bethlehem Baptist Church set up two temporary shelters through the ordinance, Stewart said. Another is in the works.

Other recommended code changes include restricting vaping and the use of drones in Tacoma parks.

Tacoma’s park code has not been updated in 10 years. Moving forward, the code will be reviewed every five years.