By John Larson
After hearing emotional testimony, Tacoma City Council passed an ordinance on Oct. 1 that will prohibit erecting tents in parks. It was approved 8 to 1, with Councilmember Chris Beale casting the dissenting vote.
Most who testified were against the ban. Zach Patton lives near Holy Rosary Catholic Church along Interstate 5, an area where he sees many homeless people. He urged the council to reject or delay the measure. He said the city has a moral obligation to allow the homeless to have some protection from the elements. “Shelter is a human right.”
Joseph Atkinson, who said he has lived in the city for 46 years, called banning tents “a step backward into the cesspool of inhumanity.”
“We know that sweeps do not work,” said Patricia Sully.
Jamie Hill recalled his time being homeless. “I hope that we can let compassion lead us.”
A few speakers supported the ban. One man told the council that parks are not meant for camping. Another, Valentine Smith, told the council that one voice is missing in the discussion, that of his 4-year-old daughter. He said he lives near People’s Park on Hilltop, where makeshift camps began to appear over the summer. Smith said he had to keep his daughter from playing in the park because of safety issues, including hypodermic syringes on the playground.
Leaders of two non-profit organizations that are collaborating on solutions to the homelessness crisis addressed the council. Eric Yoder, executive director of Associated Ministries, said the faith community wants to lend a helping hand. He cautioned the council that the burden of solving the problem cannot fall entirely on churches and non-profits.
“I am frustrated to the point of tears,” said Pamela Duncan, executive director of Metropolitan Development Council.
The original version of the ordinance from last week was amended by Councilmember Keith Blocker. This will make the law take effect in 60 days. Blocker explained that he was moved by testimony of speakers the previous week, and said the delay will allow for more time to arrange for shelter.
“I am encouraged by the energy in the room,” Blocker remarked. He advocated for a tent city when he ran for office four years ago, an idea that met with some resistance, he noted.
Mayor Victoria Woodards mentioned a tour of a tiny house community in Seattle she went on. “We should hope no one is even in a park when it is cold.”
Beale described this as a “gut wrenching” issue, adding he lost some sleep over the past week as a result.