Proposed ordinance to ban homeless encampments near city-run shelters in Tacoma

A major redrawing of where it would be legal for those experiencing homelessness to camp is up for debate by the Tacoma City Council.

A proposed ordinance could mean banning unsanctioned encampments within 10 blocks of shelters operated by the city. Proponents said it would help channel people into much-needed programs, but opponents said it’s just pushing the problem down the road—literally.

People who live and work in the area said homelessness in all parts of the city is growing out of control. Veronica Port, a 12-year resident, said a homeless encampment has been growing across the street from her front door for the past two weeks.

"Nobody wants to have that kind of mess across the street from where you live," said Port. "Tacoma has gotten worse and worse and worse when it comes to the homeless population."

"People are just setting up camp wherever they feel like it," said Samuel Jackson, who works at a local shelter.

City Council member John Hines proposed the ordinance. He said it’s not the city-operated shelters themselves that are causing challenges in Tacoma, but rather the encampments near them that attract criminals and criminal activity. Hines said the proposed ordinance could help get vulnerable people off the streets away from predators and connected to resources.

"One idea with this is as we address encampments—the few people who want services would move into shelter. The people who don’t, I guess, would just relocate to the edge or some place where they don’t want help. But then we would at least know who those people are. We could kind of zero in and really meet their needs and help them transition to the next part of life," said Hines.

Some people who live and work in the community said they are in favor of this push.

"That’s what they need: help. Not just laying[sic] around because you’re homeless and feeling sorry for yourself. Try to do something for yourself. That would actually help," said Jackson. "It would make people go through the proper channels to seek help. You’ve got to seek help first."

Others question if pushing encampments outside that 10-block buffer is a solution towards addressing homelessness in the city. The Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness wrote in a statement to FOX 13 News, "We continue to urge the City to focus its efforts on solutions to homelessness rather than regulations that would primarily criminalize access to the basic human need for shelter and place to sleep within our community."

"One thing that I hear us saying is removing these encampments. And I want to know, how will we be sure that we are removing these encampments and not just moving them to the 11th block?" asked City Council member Kiara Daniels. "We shuffle around their entire lives, their entire house, and we make it harder for them to receive services only to be a few neighborhoods or blocks down, and we just move them problem. So, we deal with the same thing over and over again. And I’m trying to figure out how this solves that."

In response to Daniels' remarks, city manager Elizabeth Pauli said, in part, "Our process is built around preserving dignity to the extent that we can, given the limitations that we can. There are just sometimes that we have to mitigate the impacts of certain sites. And we don’t believe that that mitigation, to the council member’s point, is a solution to the homelessness. It is a mitigation of the heightened health and safety issues that are occurring at that particular site."

Some residents shared ideas of their own to address homelessness.

Deputies sweep notorious homeless encampment in Parkland

Pierce County deputies swept a notorious homeless encampment in Parkland and made several arrests last week.

"Create either a government company or a private company that would require 50% of their employees to have gone from a homeless camp. So, they’re doing the work," suggested Port.

The city manager said outreach programs would continue. Under the proposed ordinance, those who don’t leave the buffer area after a certain period of time could face a fine up to $1,000 and possible jail time. 

City leaders said there would be more conversations about the proposal and finalizing a plan before sending it to a vote in the future. The next discussion is scheduled for next week.