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Tacoma moves to continue aid, enforcement around homelessness through 2019

Will James
A homeless encampment cleared from a property on Tacoma's tideflats in June 2017.

Tacoma's leaders voted Tuesday to continue a state of "public health emergency" around homeless encampments through 2019. 

City Council members first made the declaration in May 2017,  but said Tuesday that the proliferation of encampments remains an emergency in Washington's third-largest city.

The extension, which passed 8-0, comes as city leaders signal they're moving ahead with a homelessness strategy marked by a mix of expanded services and ramped-up enforcement. Tacoma officials embarked on the two-pronged strategy in 2017.

City Council members are considering extending a law passed in July 2017 that makes it illegal for people to camp where it's not expressly allowed. The law is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2018, but council members may vote next week to extend it through 2019. 

"We want to make sure, as we try to address the longer-term issues associated with homelessness, we're also addressing the nuisances that are accompanying these encampments and some of the unhealthy conditions people find themselves in," council member Robert Thoms said.

Tacoma police have given out 699 warnings to people camping illegally in 2018, but have not issued any fines, assistant chief Shawn Gustason told council members Tuesday. 

Gustason called the law "an extremely effective tool" and said a majority of violations are "resolved through voluntary compliance." 

Enforcing the law is complicated by a September federal Court of Appeals decision. Judges ruled — in a case out of Boise, Idaho — that governments cannot prosecute people for sleeping outside if there is no place for them to sleep indoors. The City of Boise has appealed the ruling. 

Tacoma police intend to comply with the decision, Gustason said. "When we do enforce this ordinance, we will make sure that there is shelter available and offered prior to enforcement," he said.

But the city's latest accounting of its homelessness efforts lays bare the challenge of getting people off the streets. 

The Tacoma Police Department's homeless outreach team identified 2,246 encampments in 2018. Members of the team reached out to 228 people living in the encampments, and 86 accepted referrals to services, city officials said. 

City Council members have also allocated $2.3 million to keep Tacoma's "stability site" running in 2019. The site, a sanctioned homeless encampment where people receive help from caseworkers and other forms of aid, opened in June 2017 and is currently home to 81 people. 

A total of 227 people have received services at the site, but only 51 have moved into housing. A lack of housing options, especially so-called "permanent supportive housing" for people with mental or physical disabilities, is an obstacle to moving people out of the site, city officials said. 

City Council members also have set aside $800,000 to establish a youth homeless shelter and drop-in center in Tacoma. 

King County and Seattle declared a state of emergency around homelessness in 2015, and it remains in effect. Thurston County and Olympia declared states of emergency this summer.

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.