The Tent in our Yard
This summer, when clients come to visit us at 217 N. 2nd Street, they are greeted first by a gray tent with a red rainfly. It has a slipcover clipped to the front, containing a copy of the new Yakima City Ordinance that essentially renders it a crime to be homeless, Yakima Municipal Code section 6.91. This is our protest tent. As criminal defense attorneys, one of our constant struggles is with the overcriminalization of all kinds of human activities. This is ordinance is a prime and an egregious example. Under the new ordinance, it becomes a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine to pitch a tent on city property. The ordinance also classifies camping paraphernalia as a public nuisance and authorizes the summary abatement of said nuisance by code enforcement. This means that a code enforcement officer can pick up an entire encampment and take it to the dump. This means that, if you are a person without a building to call home, the city has made it a crime for you to find a place to live within city limits. Not only that, the city has authorized its personnel to seize the entirety of your belongings and dispose of them without a hearing or any kind of review. You can find the ordinance at http://www.codepublishing.com/WA/Yakima/. The ordinance is overly broad in its reach, because of course it also makes it a crime to pitch a tent at Chesterley field to shade your soccer team during games. It is unduly vague, in making it a crime "to store personal property" . . . . in "any . . . . property . . . . owned by the City of Yakima." The phrases "including but not limited to" and "includes but not limited to" appear six times in this ordinance. Three of those uses are in the definitions section! The function of a definition is supposed to be to clarify meaning. In this ordinance though, the definitions section serves to explain that the phrases "Camping facilities, "Camping paraphernalia" and "City property" are essentially meaningless. Leaving any item of personal property on any city property for any length of time for any purpose has become a criminal act.
And Yakima should be honest about its purpose. The goal of this ordinance is to drive away people described as homeless. To strip them of a place to stay, and to strip them of their belongings. To make their lives unbearable so that they will leave us. Nobody expects the ordinance to be enforced against soccer moms or happy viewers attending movie night at the park. Code enforcement officials are not going to snap up my picnic blanket and toss it in the dumpster. Their task will be to pick up the cardboard house taped together against weather, containing odds and ends probably taken from a dumpster. It's aggressive. cruel, and unconstitutional. It's a bad reaction to a normal problem for a growing, thriving city such as Yakima.
We don't take lightly the inconveniences suffered particularly by downtown businesses as a result of people living in the streets. We are a downtown business. People shit on our property regularly. People leave their belongings in our rose garden. People bathe at the tap attached to our building, frequently leaving the tap open. People wander through our yard and sometimes into our building during daylight hours, repulsing potential clients and frightening those walking to and from the courthouse and city hall. We want to be a part of a fair and compassionate effort by the City to address that ongoing conflict. That can never include targeting an entire population by criminalizing their need to sleep outside at night and find a place to hide their meager belongings.