The Tacoma City Council doubled down on its emergency response to the city’s homelessness crisis the week.
Unfortunately, its narrow-minded and stubborn insistence on criminalizing homelessness as part of that effort seriously risks overshadowing any good that might be achieved through the city’s three-phase approach to addressing the crisis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And if the goal is to help people get off the streets, and make Tacoma safer for all residents and business owners, it won’t work.
First, the good: In a unanimous vote, council members extended a declaration of a public emergency related to homelessness until the end of the year. The declaration, which allows the city flexibility in contracting, permitting and budgeting, dates to May and was scheduled to expire this month.
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It’s a key component of the ongoing approach to mitigate the health and safety effects of homelessness on individuals and the community, allowing for important steps to be taken quickly.
The council should have stopped there.
Regrettably, it did not.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland and council members Robert Thoms, Marty Campbell, Joe Lonergan, Conor McCarthy, Ryan Mello, Keith Blocker, Anders Ibsen and Lauren Walker Lee also extended the city’s temporary (and just maybe unconstitutional) ban on camping on public property, which dates back to July and makes the offense a misdemeanor.
Keep in mind, this at a time when the Dome District stability site is full, with a waiting list. The same generally holds true for all other shelters in the city as well.
Meanwhile, the city continues to crack down on people living in their cars, in some cases families down to their last sole possession, just trying to stick together. The law, which didn’t need to be extended since it was passed with no expiration date, includes provisions that ratchet up fines, depending on how many times an individual has been cited, going from $50 for the first offense, to $100 for the second and finally to $250 for three or more.
The combined approach has been described as a tough love. City leaders have suggested that providing crucial services and shelter to those experiencing homelessness, coupled with laws designed to push people into designated shelters, is a mix of empathy, enticement and necessary enforcement.
In reality, much of it is just a backward miscalculation destined to mar any progress the city makes.
At a study session this week, City Manager Elizabeth Pauli, and others, repeatedly highlighted the success stories of Tacoma’s three-phase approach.
From the Dome District tent city, which the city hopes to operate into next year, there are the nine individuals who have moved to either temporary or permanent supportive housing and the 47 individuals who have developed housing stability plans.
That’s what progress looks like.
Pauli then moved on to the enforcement numbers. She enumerated the 327 encampments that have been removed, the 91 drug-related arrests, the 396 traffic citations issued near the stability site and the combined 75 citations issued for unlawful camping and vehicle habitation.
“Startling, but impressive,” she said.
Let’s focus specifically on the city’s ban on public camping and its vehicle habitation law.
Startling? Perhaps. Impressive? Not so much.
Thirty-five misdemeanor citations have been issued for unlawful camping, which carries a max fine of $1,000 and the possibility of jail time. Six people who have received the citations have filed not guilty pleas. Three other cases have been dismissed without prejudice. The remaining cases are all pending.
According to a criminal defense attorney with knowledge of the situation, there are already cases where unlawful camping defendants have missed their court dates and warrants have been issued for their arrest.
When you consider the challenges of escaping homelessness, including the effect that small-time criminal records can have, issuing arrest warrants to people struggling to find some place to live is hardly progress toward the end goal.
Then there’s the vehicle-habitation law.
Information from the Tacoma Police Department shows 41 such violations have been issued. Records through Oct. 6 show only six have been filed with the court. Of those six, five people have been found to have violated the law, and all five of those cases have been sent to collections because the defendant has failed to respond.
So how much better off does any of this leave us?
In the city’s attempt to appease aggrieved local business and property owners while at the same trying to help lift individuals out of chronic homelessness, what it’s really done is stumble in a dangerous direction.
We know the criminalization of homelessness doesn’t work. In fact, it’s constitutionally problematic, and typically makes the problem worse.
We know collections notices and arrest warrants make it less likely that an individual experiencing homelessness will be able to find their way out of it, let alone trust the city when it extends a helping hand.
We know the city’s shelters — including the Dome District stability site — are full, meaning that those facing misdemeanor charges for sleeping on the street truly have nowhere else to go.
And we know it doesn’t have to be this way.
Compassionate, effective, common-sense approaches to the city’s homelessness crisis don’t need to include pointless get-tough tactics aimed at a population already in survival mode.
Now, what we need is for someone — anyone — on the city council to step up and say so.