The criminalization of homelessness is not a solution to the housing crisis.

The creation of laws has never been to serve the masses, but rather to control them for the benefit of those in power. The criminalization of homelessness is a prime example of this fact. Laws that unjustly and disproportionately affect those without housing do nothing to help our communities, rather they work to further disenfranchise people in an unjust system.

Even amid a global pandemic, the city of Tacoma has decided that rather than finding a solution to the housing crisis, they would instead criminalize those doing everything in their power to survive. This effort would not go unchecked, a coalition of Tacoma organizations came together and organized different forms of protest against this ordinance, this coalition included Tacoma Housing Now, Tacoma DSA, Sunrise Tacoma, TMAC and Our Revolution Pierce County.

According to The People’s Assembly Facebook page “Today [April 20, 2021], we gathered in protest of proposed Ordinance 28756 which seeks to amend chapter 8.19 of the Tacoma Municipal Code, making it unlawful for any person to ‘camp’ or ‘store personal property’ on public property and includes fining individuals who are found to be in violation of the ordinance.” This action took place on the steps of Tacoma City Hall. 

An amendment that clearly targets the encampments scattered around the city was proposed with no real solutions to the issue of homelessness, it’s only goal is to make the policing of homeless individuals easier. To give cops even more opportunities to terrorize those that are simply doing their best to survive and hide them away for the comfort of the housed. 

“What the city fails to acknowledge is the cruelty behind the act of introducing an anti-human, anti-survival ordinance in the first place,” The People’s Assembly went on to say. A ban on public camping is a thinly veiled death sentence. It is a declaration that the city does not care about the wellbeing of our unhoused neighbors, nor does it care about creating real lasting solutions.

The People’s Assembly further explained the reasons for their protest. 

“We gathered today to indict the systems, cultures, and agents of white supremacist capitalism that make it possible for such ordinance to be proposed in the face of a global health crisis — a crisis that has exacerbated disparities faced by Black, Indigenous, poor, and unhoused people.” 

Later in the day some of the groups from the coalition, Tacoma Housing Now, Tacoma DSA and The People’s Assembly gathered at Wright Park for a different style of protest. Taking direct action against the ban by setting up tents in the park. The coalition also gave out pizza and tents at this event. Rebecca Parson, a spokesperson for Tacoma Housing Now, spoke to the reason that the group has chosen direct action as one of their forms of protest.

“We have chosen direct action because the usual methods of advocating with City Council and writing letters, etc. haven’t been working: the crisis has only been getting worse. As a result of our direct action, we got new beds added to the shelter system, hygiene stations at camps, and the warming shelter went to 24/7 and was extended by a month.” 

Through these efforts, we can see the very real and immediate impacts of direct action, when people come together to make a statement, those in power have no choice but to listen and do something about it. 

These battles are not easily won though, and consistency and diversity of tactics is key to making change and forcing the hand of the state. Parson went on to say that, “after our months of direct action, Pierce County finally applied for the free money from FEMA for housing people in hotels, which has been available for over a year.” 

This is money that could have saved lives in the winter months when sleeping outside is especially dangerous, when people were freezing to death on the streets of Tacoma. It is money that advocates have been demanding be put to use since it’s been available. But in light of the wins, it is more important than ever to continue to advocate for the needs of our unhoused neighbors and center their voices in our demands. 

The ordinance vote was postponed until May 18. The People’s Assembly has very clear demands from the city. 

“We want housing. We want investment in true and equitable solutions led by community members who are directly impacted by and living through the very circumstances that the city has sought to outlaw. We want abolition of police — and certainly not the bolstering of police which would be sanctioned by this proposed ordinance. We want justice. We want redistribution of wealth. We want for our people to be free of a reality where our livelihoods are tied to systems that are intent on killing us. Nothing less.” 

More demonstrations will likely be planned around the date of the vote, and we must show up however we can and support the demands of those most affected by these policies. “I hope these demonstrations will inspire others to take action. There are roles in every direct action with varying levels of risk, and people can participate with a very low risk of arrest,” Parson explained. 

The criminalization of homelessness through fines and criminal penalties for things such as sitting, making fires, asking for money, and sleeping or camping in public spaces only further traumatizes and disenfranchises those experiencing houselessness. Criminalization is not, and never will be, a solution. We cannot allow the city to pass this cruel and ineffective ordinance.

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