By John Larson
Peoples Park, located at South 9th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, has become a haven for the homeless over the past year. As the number of tents in the Hilltop park have increased, the city government has tried to relocate the homeless campers. On Jan. 3, the city issued a 72-hour notice that the park would be closed. On Jan. 6 the city announced in a press release that the park would be closed for several days to allow time to clean up waste at the camp. The release stated that enforcement of the ban on camping in the park would begin 30 minutes after dusk on Jan. 7. Parks in Tacoma are closed to the public from sunrise to sunset. Despite this policy, people have been camping in Peoples Park for months. Last fall the council passed an ordinance banning enclosed structures, such as tents, from parks. That policy was set to be effective Dec. 1, but the city held off on enforcement as efforts continued to find other sheltering options for the homeless population in the parks. One effort was installation of 22 micro houses, intended to house up to 35 people. These were installed in December on a vacant lot a block away from the park.
A number of people attempted to discuss the topic during the public comment segment of the Tacoma City Council meeting on Jan. 7. Each was gaveled down by Mayor Victoria Woodards because the topic was not on the agenda. The mayor reminded attendees that they could speak on this topic during the Jan. 14 meeting, when the citizens forum will take place. Held on the second Tuesday of each month, citizens forum allows for testimony on topics not on the agenda, but that have some general connection to city government and council decision making.
Several of these individuals then stood along one side of the council chambers and unfurled a white banner with black letters that read stop the sweeps. The mayor decided to address the topic. She told the audience that the city is not conducting a sweep. “This council is committed to ending homelessness in our city,” Woodards declared.
She then asked City Manager Elizabeth Pauli for background information as well as an update. Pauli explained that a ban on overnight camping in parks has long been on the books. Because there were still homeless people in tents as of Dec. 1, the city held off on enforcement of the tent ban. Some were eventually moved into the micro-houses. Still, there were dozens of tents in Peoples Park as of early January. Pauli said the homeless outreach team had found space in shelters for several people as for Jan. 6. This included five at the city’s stability site on Puyallup Avenue, two at Park Place, three at Tacoma Rescue Mission and three at Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Woodards said city staff put in long hours in December to transition people into the micro houses. The goal of the city government is for all residents to have a warm, dry, safe place to say, she added. “That is what we are committed to.”
Several people who tried to address the council are members of the Tacoma chapter of Democracy Socialists of America. One co-chair of the group, Nichole Crockett, said while much of the attention on homeless has been on Peoples Park on Hilltop, the problem exists elsewhere in the city. Crockett said there have been people camping in Jane Clark Park, located on North Orchard Street in the North End.
The other co-chair, Megan Little, said the micro houses were all filled prior to the city issuing the 72-hour notice. She said there were 50 tents in Peoples Park on the evening of Jan. 6. Some of the campers were packing up their belongings during a rainstorm. She noted there is a forecast for snow next week, adding another layer of hardship for the unsheltered. The group has a list of demands for the city government. Among them is a repeal of the tent ban, or at least a delay in enforcement until there is adequate designated shelter during the day and night and to used publicly-owned land for small, self-governed tent cities.