It will soon be illegal to put up tents or other makeshift structures in Tacoma parks.
On Tuesday night, the Tacoma City Council voted in favor of a ban on temporary structures with walls, despite concerns raised by many residents about how it will affect those who are homeless.
The new regulations were developed by the Metro Parks board in response to “emerging public safety issues” that police can’t properly address under existing law.
Many who spoke during public comment did not see it that way.
The prevailing sentiment was that the ban will penalize those who set up camp in parks because they have nowhere else to go.
“You guys keep talking about the tents,” said Melissa Dunbar, a Tacoma resident. “This is not about the tents. This is about the blood, the flesh and the bone inside of those tents.”
Opponents of the ordinance also questioned the wisdom of making the change so close to winter and while the city is still struggling to find adequate shelter space for those who need housing.
“Problems don’t disappear just because you hide them and this doesn’t make us any safer,” said Jenelle Walter who lives in the Hilltop neighborhood. “I don’t see any solution in this ordinance.”
Others called the ban on temporary structures discriminatory, cruel and immoral.
Alec Brisson said he currently lives in a shelter and has lived in city parks.
“All that we had there were our tents, our homes, we cleaned up after ourselves, we didn’t mess anything up,” Brisson said.
Anita Gallagher with the city manager’s office pushed back on the notion that the ordinance would lead to arrests and displacement of those who are camping in parks.
“The city does not conduct sweeps. We are not intending to criminalize homelessness,” said Anita Gallagher with the city manager’s office.
Gallagher said the new rule will give the city’s homeless outreach team more latitude to offer services and to help those who need it.
Camping overnight is already illegal in parks.
Valentine Smith, who lives down the road from People’s Park in Tacoma, said he supports the rule change because the parks are now filled with drug paraphernalia and illegal activity.
“All summer long, I had to look at my 4-year-old daughter and say, ‘No, sweetie, we can’t go to the park,' because the fact of the matter is the park is not a safe place for her,” Smith said during public comment.
In a compromise, the city council voted to push back the effective date of the ordinance until December in hopes of giving the city and service providers more time to prepare for its potential impact.
“We should hope that no one is even in the park when it’s cold outside in the tent,” said Mayor Victoria Woodards. “We are saying we want to move you out of the park and move you to somewhere that’s safer, warmer and dry.”
There was only one vote on the city council against the ordinance.
Council member Chris Beale said he felt the timing wasn’t right, given the city’s ongoing efforts to come up with a comprehensive solution to homelessness.
“If it’s a good idea now, it’s going to be a good idea then,” he said.