The Department of Justice has launched an inquiry into Puyallup’s proposal to impose special requirements on a controversial downtown homeless aid program, both the city and the homeless agency confirmed Wednesday.
Puyallup spokeswoman Brenda Fritzvold said the federal agency had sent the city a letter Dec. 6 inquiring about the specifics of the city’s plan to impose “high impact business” requirements on the New Hope Resource Center before it would grant the homeless aid agency a renewed business license.
The city is still gathering information to reply to the department’s query, she said.
Steve Kirkelie, Puyallup assistant city manager, said the department’s inquiry came as a surprise to the city and the City Council.
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Federal officials asked for voluminous documents including public testimony regarding the proposed license enhancements, the city’s history of business licensing activity and other items.
“We are fully cooperating with the Department of Justice,” he said. “We want to be completely transparent in this matter.”
Emily Langlie, a Department of Justice spokeswoman in Seattle, said she couldn’t comment on the matter. A letter sent to Puyallup indicates that the feds are investigating whether the city’s actions constitute religious discrimination. New Hope describes itself as a faith-based ecumenical organization.
The city decided last summer to create a new set of conditions for businesses that create larger-than-normal impacts on the community and surrounding neighborhoods.
New Hope has become a lightning rod for citizen complaints since it opened two years ago. Residents and business people have filled the City Council chambers on several occasions this year to tell council members about crime, anti-social behavior and drug use that they attribute to a new influx of homeless people.
The “high impact” licensing requirements were part of the city’s response to those citizen concerns.
Under that newly proposed set of rules, New Hope and other businesses like it would have to fence off their facilities, hire security guards and improve background checks on the people they help.
While a draft set of rules has been on the books for several months, the city has yet to impose them.
“All that we are trying to do is to strike a balance between public safety and the needs of New Hope and the homeless,” Kirkelie said.
Paula Anderson, New Hope’s director, said the center didn’t file a complaint with the Justice Department.
The department, which has requested information from New Hope, told the nonprofit group that it began its inquiry because of media coverage of Puyallup’s attempts to deal with its homelessness problem.
Anderson said New Hope’s objective is to reach a long-term understanding with the city about how best to meet the needs of the homeless and to address citizen safety concerns.
The center, a gathering place for the homeless population to receive lunch and counseling assistance, can’t afford to meet the city’s proposed high-impact requirements. “They would basically drive us out of business,” she said.
Puyallup won the dubious honor of being named to the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s “Hall of Shame” for its homeless policies earlier this year. The national center claimed that the city was driving homeless people from public property without offering them alternative shelter, a practice that courts have rejected. It has hinted it may sue Puyallup over its rules.
East Pierce County has no permanent shelter for the homeless. Local Puyallup churches have been housing the homeless overnight during the coldest months in a program they’ve named “Freezing Nights.”