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Tacoma Could Allow Six New Tent Cities

Will James
Tacoma's first legal tent city while under construction last year

Leaders in Tacoma could allow up to six legal tent cities to open. The move is part of a yearlong shift in the way city officials manage homelessness.

A proposal before the City Council would allow religious groups, nonprofit organizations, or governmental bodies to temporarily host and manage the sites on their properties.

The six tent cities would have to be spread throughout the city's four police sectors. That means two of the sectors could get a maximum of two tent cities each.

City Council members could vote to finalize the plan Tuesday.

Tacoma opened its first legal tent city last year on city property, though the site has operated at capacity for months and has a waitlist. 

The decision to open the site came after city leaders declared unsanctioned encampments a "public health emergency" and embarked on a two-pronged plan to both ramp up outreach and crack down on people living illegally in tents and vehicles.

Leaders in other cities have sanctioned some so-called “low-barrier” encampments as a way to accommodate homeless people who might not be allowed in more permanent shelter. Some people are turned away from shelters because of addiction or behavioral problems or because they can't stay with partners or pets.

Six such sites are operating in Seattle.

Under Tacoma’s proposal, the half-dozen new tent cities could house up to 100 people each. The city's plan relies on outside groups volunteering their properties and resources to host and oversee the sites.

City Council members are still refining the details, such as how long a site could stay in one place and who would be allowed in.

Council Member Ryan Mello proposes barring only people with violent felonies and high-level sex offenses.

“What the council is trying to do is limit barriers to sheltering homeless folks in a humane way while also trying to limit the unintended possible impacts of these temporary shelters,” he said. “We’re trying to thread that needle.”

The city’s plan has gotten support from some residents. Patricia Menzies, who spoke at a City Council meeting last week, said tent cities are a way to keep people safe even if they're unsheltered.

“As an older woman, I cannot imagine what it would be like to try to sleep on the street,” she said. “The fear. And after a couple of days of sleep deprivation, you show all the symptoms of mental illness, even if you didn’t have it to start with.”

Other residents told the council at a public hearing last month that their neighborhoods could not absorb any more of the city’s homeless population.


Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.