Matt Driscoll

More city-sanctioned tent cities could be coming to Tacoma in wake of parks tent ban

Standing along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd on a bright, brisk morning, Tacoma City Council member Keith Blocker — whose district includes Hilltop — cut to the chase.

Blocks away, at People’s Park, rows of tents filled the planting strips. The situation — which recently moved from the park itself to the edge of the park — has had Blocker’s attention for most of the summer, he said, generating more than a few angry emails from constituents.

“I keep getting calls about the parks. Violence, drugs, people are afraid to take their kids there,” Blocker explained. “I could show you email after email of people just handing me my ass about People’s Park.”

At least in part, that’s why Blocker and others believe it’s time for something new and different.

That includes ideas that have previously been difficult to swallow at City Hall, he said, like scattered shelter sites throughout the city, or tent cities. The hope, Blocker said, is finally finding a suitable place for some of the most service-resistant members of Tacoma’s homeless population.

“When I got on the council, I said let’s do tent cities, and (Mayor Marilyn Strickland) and (City Manager T.C. Broadnax) said ‘No,’” Blocker told The News Tribune.

“We’re going to have to do it,” he continued, adding that the change may require adjusting current limitations on the number of emergency homeless shelter sites allowed in each of the city’s four police sectors . “We’re going to have to create temporary sites, but it’s going to have to be led by community members and nonprofits.”

Why this? And why now?

Sitting on the curb near People’s Park, 40-year-old Tommy Wright provided part of the answer.

An hour earlier, Wright looked around and said simply, “I’ve been here my whole life.”

Wright was talking about Hilltop. He was born here, he explained, at a hospital down the street. He was raised here, in a home his grandfather owned.

And, for the last two years, Wright has been homeless here.

“I had my own place. I made good money. I was a server. I made good tips, and I had things the way I would have liked them to have been,” Wright said of the life he had before becoming homeless.

“I didn’t know what it was like to be homeless until I was out here.”

Wright’s situation is particularly tenuous because his days sleeping among the rows of tents that now line People’s Park are numbered, and he knows it.

Beginning Dec. 1, a new rule — in response to the kinds of issues experienced at People’s Park and other parks throughout the city — will ban tents and other walled structures during the day. Camping at night is already prohibited.

Around the same time, Tacoma Police spokesperson Loretta Cool said, camping on the city-owned parking strips along People’s Park — which is already illegal — will also begin to be addressed.

This, too, is part of the city’s latest response to its homelessness crisis.

‘Alternative spaces’

According to officials from Metro Parks, the city and the police department, the new rule and enforcement measures will help address concerns at parks, with coordinated outreach efforts hopefully helping to move individuals experiencing homelessness into better, safer situations.

Passed by an 8-1 vote of the Tacoma City Council on Oct. 2, implementation of the code change was delayed 60 days after a public outcry about the impact of rushing to clear the parks of homeless encampments.

The goal of the delay is to allow Associated Ministries, the Metropolitan Development Council, the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance and other community partners to develop new shelter options between now and when implementation begins.

The park code change, according to Anita Gallagher, an assistant to the city manager, “does not make using a tent a criminal offense.”

Rather, Gallagher said, the goal is to “work to connect individuals with services that help them with their particular needs.”

Shon Sylvia, executive director of Metro Parks, believes it’s a worthy goal, and an achievable one.

“We are working with the city, other public agencies, and the faith-based community to identify other temporary spaces that allow tents in lieu of parks, as well as more permanent solutions to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness,” Sylvia explained.

“Doing more of the same is not an option, or we will be having this same conversation next spring,” he added. “Our alternative spaces won’t be perfect, but we’re confident that the options will be in place by Dec. 1, with a scalable plan, because a lot of good people from different organizations are working on it.”

Officials with MDC and Associated Ministries, who have been tasked with pulling it together, believe all of this is possible — but it’s going to take time, they said.

By Dec. 1, some are uncertain what will have materialized, including Michael Yoder, the executive director of Associated Ministries.

“There’s so much energy toward doing something unique and different,” Yoder said, before tempering his enthusiasm with the reality of the quickly approaching deadline and the challenge it entails.

“I hope there are a few more things in place,” he added.

Limited success so far

The new Metro Parks’ code represents the latest step in the delicate tightrope walk Tacoma has been attempting since 2017, when then Mayor Marilyn Strickland and her council colleagues declared homelessness in the city to be a public health emergency.

During that time, elected officials have sometimes referred to the “push and pull” their emergency response requires, especially with federal court rulings essentially making it unconstitutional to criminalize homelessness unless adequate options are provided.

For Tacoma’ that has meant trying to strike a balance between providing things like additional shelter space and services while also utilizing enforcement measures to help reduce the negative neighborhood and public health impacts of homelessness.

It hasn’t always worked as intended.

With a lack of permanent supportive housing to rely on, the city’s multi-million dollar Dome District shelter has typically operated at or near capacity, just like other shelter options in Tacoma.

Meanwhile, while each represents a success story, over the course of several years a relatively small number of individuals who have received services have actually become housed.

The dilemma is one reason why, way back in 2017, the city began attempting to work with faith-based organizations and nonprofits to host shelter sites.

To date, however, the results have been limited at best.

Bethlehem Baptist, on Tacoma’s Eastside, has been one church to pull it off.

According to Yoder, others have expressed interest over the years, only to be turned off by the red tape involved.

Now, spurred by the park code change, city officials hope a renewed push to engage faith-based organizations and nonprofits will turn the tide.

Yoder and MDC executive director Pam Duncan — who previously served as Tacoma’s Human Services Division manager — are optimistic that results will be different this time.

They envision an ecosystem where different sites serve different populations across the city.

Some might look like tent cities, Duncan said. Others might include tiny homes. Still others might include local churches housing families within their facilities.

Everything is on the table, Duncan said.

Precisely how many shelter beds the city hopes to create through the effort remains unclear, she added.

“As a community, we know this type of work,” Duncan said of the ability of local faith-based organizations and churches to provide shelter sites, as long as they receive adequate support from the city.

“We have this experience and have done it for a couple years, and it works. Now we need to just help people understand that this works, and we need folks who can be the host of the sites,” Duncan added.

“We have to have some sites established in less than 60 days. I think we can do it.”

For his part, Yoder acknowledges that this approach places a heavy burden on churches and nonprofits.

He also senses the urgency, believing that the will exists, while cautioning that the relationship between the city and the organizations they’re hoping to bring into the fold need maintenance after years of strain.

“Churches have always been a big part of it, and they will continue to be a big part. With a different level of support (from the city), I think they’ll be even a bigger part of it,” Yoder said. “But the full burden cannot be imposed onto our congregations and nonprofits.”

Yoder also worries about the Dec. 1 deadline.

“I just don’t see how they can start enforcing this unless they have several operating (shelter) options when they begin,” he said.

Conversely, Sylvia believes the 60-day window — while small — has the potential to push the city in a positive direction.

“The code change is not the answer. Finding a solution is also not just the responsibility of the city,” Sylvia said. “It will not be perfect, but using this code revision as a catalyst for change … will get us better aligned.

“More importantly, it needs to be better than our current situation.”

Healthy skepticism

For the folks sleeping on the fringes of People’s Park, the optimism expressed by the city, the police, Metro Parks and leaders like Yoder and Duncan was met Wednesday morning with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Instead of providing a new solution, many fear it will come to represent the latest shuffle in an existence full of them.

“I’ll still be somewhere, and I’ll still have a tent,” predicted 34-year-old Vivian Pacheco, who said she spent the last few nights in a friend’s tent at People’s Park.

Pacheco, who was born in Puyallup, she said she grew up in Lakewood and, since a 2014 house fire, has been homeless in Tacoma.

“Every day is a challenge, a struggle,” she explained. “Every day is beyond a challenge to survive, because you never know what’s going to come across your path or what God’s going to put in your way. But at the same time, he’ll never put anything in front of you that he knows you cannot handle.”

That includes the new park code, Pacheco said.

Wright echoed her sentiments, with his personal experience as evidence.

He said that like many of the people currently camping at People’s Park, he has tried repeatedly to access shelter space without much luck. For many, he said, there’s a reason existing shelter space doesn’t work for them — like a pet, a partner or a previous run-in that resulted in them being banned.

More than anything, Wright fears more of the same.

“They tried to push it from where it was to here,” he said of how previous homelessness enforcement measures have moved some of Tacoma’s most difficult to house and shelter from imperfect spot to imperfect spot in recent years

Asked for a prediction, Wright said he believes the ban on tents and structures will likely push people “into the streets and neighborhoods again.”

“It will go into people’s yards,” he said, “and places they didn’t want us to begin with.”

That, of course, is what the city and its partners are trying to avoid — but Dec. 1 is quickly approaching.

“We’re going to figure something out. I really believe it,” Yoder said.

“Now, 60 days from now? We’ll know a lot more.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.