By John Larson
An ordinance that would amend several sections of the park code drew emotional testimony on the topic of tent cities popping up in parks during the Sept. 24 Tacoma City Council meeting. The ordinance would address a number of items, with drones coming up in the discussion, but the main topic of interest among the public was a potential ban on tents.
Currently, police officers cannot enter a tent in a park without a search warrant, regardless if there is reason to believe there may be criminal activity occurring inside, or if an inhabitant may be in need of medical assistance. The last time the park code was revised was 10 years ago. The council had a first reading of the ordinance, with the second planned for Sept. 31. If the measure passes, people who congregate in parks would have to be in a structure without walls.
Metro Parks Commissioner Aaron Pointer said the agency has heard concerns from residents about feeling unsafe in parks.
Major Martha Sheppard of the Salvation Army said tents provide some level of protection for the homeless, especially when cold, wet weather sets in. A ban on tents would increase the risk of hypothermia, she remarked. “Say no to punishment, say yes to shelter.”
Paul Crandel, who said he had been homeless for six months, said banning the use of tents would just continue the cycle of homelessness. “To me, this feels like a modern-day Jim Crow policy,” he declared.
Melissa Dunbar mentioned her experience being homeless. She said that such people need to be helped, not shamed and pushed out. She said the ordinance aims to criminalize homelessness, adding she fears people would die when colder weather arrives. “I have never seen so many homeless people in plain sight in my life,” Dunbar added.
Hilltop resident Greg Walker said the policy would treat the homeless as criminals.
“I am not afraid of the homeless,” Kyle Jolibois said to the Council. “I am afraid of you guys.”
Gerrit Nyland works for Catholic Community Services, which serves many homeless and low-income clients. He mentioned the lack of shelter space in the area, and fears banning tents will damage those who live outside even more.
Neal Rogers, who said he recently earned his degree in social work, mentioned his experience being homeless. He said his camp was in a discrete, well-hidden spot, in contrast to some of the very visible tents in People’s Park and Wright Park. He urged the council to postpone a vote on the ordinance. “These people have a right to exist. These people have a right to sleep.”
Anita Gallagher, an assistant to the city manager, explained to the council that camping overnight in a park is already prohibited. She also noted that under current city code, only one sanctioned tent city is allowed in each police sector. Tacoma has four sectors.
City Attorney Bill Fosbre noted that a violation of this rule would be a civil infraction, not a crime. No one would be arrested for violated the ordinance. Fosbre likened it to a parking ticket. The rule would apply to any use of a tent in a park, whether as shelter for a homeless person or a coach or parent erecting one during a youth soccer game.
Councilmember Ryan Mello said the city has contacted a number of churches in regard to hosting a tent city. Most are not interested in participating, he noted.
Councilmember Keith Blocker made clear the offense he took to the Jim Crow comment. Blocker, who is black, mentioned how Jim Crow laws on the books in the South discriminated against blacks in many aspects of daily life. “Please try to leave out the racial references.”
Blocker said some residents have complained about finding needles in parks. He noted the city is dealing with the homeless of the city, as well as from around the county.
Councilmember Robert Thoms said many residents expect parks to be places for family recreation, and have reservations about seeing them used for camping. “We are not going to let people put hardened structures in our parks,” he declared.
Mayor Victoria Woodards said she was bothered by some of the testimony she heard. The mayor noted that on some controversial topics, only one side shows up to testify on Tuesday nights. She said people on the other side of this issue may be watching on television or contacting council members by phone or e-mail
Woodards mentioned an incident where a family encountered a homeless man brandishing a knife in a park. She added that many homeless people turn down offers of services from police or social workers, a figure she said estimated at 70 percent.