Hilltop homeless camp sweep draws protest from neighbors

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By Matt Nagle

On Friday, Oct. 18, Tacoma police led a sweep of a homeless encampment in Hilltop. It was a cold, rainy day but that didn’t stop those staying dry in their tents from being evicted right on the spot. The city holds itself to giving a 72-hour notice before such sweeps occur, but those affected by it that day say that no notice was given. Now, those who were evicted have gone to People’s Park. Observers say that this move to a new location shows the futility of sweeps to actually help solve the problem of homelessness.

Tacoma Weekly readers reached out to us about that Friday sweep, including local resident Donna Walters. Here is what she has to say:

“I’m shocked that our homeless people are treated with such disregard and contempt. One minute these people are at home in their homeless camps and the next day they are forced to vacate on a moment’s notice. These are people from all walks of life, all with their own stories on how they became one of them – the homeless.

“They are allowed to set up camp for months, to settle in and then threatened with jail if they aren’t gone in three days. We cannot have it both ways, giving them an opportunity to stay in one place and threatening them in the next breath.

“You must agree this campsite would not have been such an eye sore, nor a health hazard, if there were trash receptacles and port-a-potties. One man’s trash is not always garbage. These things you see left behind are hobbies and prized possessions for most of our homeless and cannot be carried away in a knapsack. Blankets and clothes are all they can carry at one time.

“I spoke with a homeless man at this scene yesterday (Oct. 18). He said what we see as trash are their hobbies and what we see as trash is what keeps them sane. He said just like you, we have hobbies too except you have a house and we don’t. An eye waking moment indeed.

“After reading Tacoma’s Emergency Temporary Aid and Shelter Three Phase Approach, I was shocked with the fees and the cost. The costs are outrageous. By the time the fees and other costs are doled out to the different entities, there are no monies left to deal with the big picture – shelter! 

“On June 6, 2017, it states that city staff are still working on a budget. Do we have a budget? We create the task force and print our ideas on pretty gloss paper so we can feel good about ourselves for a moment. We pat ourselves on the back praising each other for a job well done. It’s a band-aid.

“This is not a feel good moment. I feel everyone should read the city’s three-phase approach again.”

The Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee issued the following news release, pointing out that the city’s ban on tents in public parks, set to begin on Dec. 1, will only make matters worse. The group also offers six recommendations to help bring a different take on how to help the homeless:

Today, Fri., Oct. 19, in the cold and rain, the Tacoma Police Department swept an encampment of approximately 30 people at 11thStreet and J Street in the Hilltop neighborhood. The police verbally claimed they posted 72 hour’s notice, but the residents of the encampment said they received no notice.The only notice they received, in fact, was their homes coming down upon them as the police dismantled their tents, taking their valuable belongings into white vans to be picked up at the Stability Site and leaving everything else to be picked up later as trash. Police told a TTOC Organizer that Councilmember Keith Blocker had authorized the sweep.

Why today? It was a choice to carry out this sweep today on one of the coldest, rainiest days that we’ve had this season. Instead of choosing a dry day, this caused additional chaos for our unhoused community members to find a new place to stay tonight and also completely soaked all of their personal belongings.

This inhumane action comes in the wake of the City Council’s vote to ban camping in public parks, due to go into effect on Dec. 1. The city has mismanaged the homelessness crisis for decades, choosing to criminalize poverty and homelessness and enact band-aid emergency measures instead of long-term solutions to house all residents. 

One clear example of this was in 2017 when the City of Tacoma declared a State of Public Health Emergency over Homelessness. The City of Tacoma responded with a Three-Phased Emergency Temporary Aid and Shelter Plan, which included the Stability Site that we see today. What is often left out of the story is the “Unlawful Camping” law (TMC.8.12.180) first approved in July 2017 saying that, “It is unlawful for any person to camp upon any public property in the City of Tacoma.” This criminalization of homelessness violates the civil and human rights of our unsheltered neighbors, costs taxpayers money, and is ultimately an ineffective method of addressing underlying causes of homelessness, as written in the 2019 report “No Safe Place” by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The sweep on J Street could not have happened without this unjust camping ban in place. 

During the 2019 Point in Time Count in Pierce County, 629 people were counted as unsheltered and 857 people were counted in either shelters or transitional housing. Our current shelter capacity in Pierce County is completely insufficient. We also know that the Point in Time survey may under-representthe true number of people experiencing homelessness.

Are we going to continue to criminalize homelessness and cause life-altering, traumatic sweeps, rather than working to truly solve the housing and public health crisis in our region? Winter is coming. Where are people going to go?

We call on the City of Tacoma to:

  1. Delay the implementation of the Metro Parks tent ban only until the city has adequate designated day and night shelter.
  2. Decline to renew TMC 8.12.180 (i.e. “Unlawful Camping”) set to expire Dec. 31.
  3. Follow in the footsteps of the City of Austin, TX to overturn the public camping ban, allowing police to only sweep campsites (i.e. unhoused people’s homes) if they present a public health or safety hazard or are blocking a walkway.
  4. Invest in more creative emergency shelters; utilizing public land for safe and sanitary encampments and creating facilities, like Urban Rest Stop (https://urbanreststop.org), where people experiencing homelessness have access to restrooms, showers and laundry services.
  5. Immediately pass tenant protections to keep more people in their homes, as recommended by the City’s Affordable Housing Action Strategy, with an ordinance for Just Cause protections to prevent arbitrary terminations of tenancy, and supporting the statewide fight for rent control. 
  6. Stop giving luxury developers tax breaks and focus on building more public housing for low-income and working people.

Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee (TTOC) was formed in the wake of the mass eviction at the Tiki Apartments last year. Our struggle began at the Tiki Apartments when over 100 low-income tenants were given 20 day notices to leave the premises by an out of town developer. Since that eviction, many of the former Tiki residents have become homeless and three have died. TTOC has won significant victories for tenants’ rights, but the fight continues. Many people are one lost paycheck or medical emergency away from homelessness. Housing is a human right and we are all in the fight together.

Learn more at https://tacomatenants.org and on Facebook.

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