Support for homelessness services is flagging even as the issue grows larger in East Pierce County.
Two church groups have backed out of Puyallup’s voluntary Freezing Nights program to house the homeless overnight during colder months, and a high-profile homeless aid center in downtown Puyallup says it is barely making ends meet.
Meanwhile, the Pierce County Council this month defeated a resolution that would have raised $10 million annually in sales tax revenue for mental health and homeless programs, and the Puyallup City Council, which in late November appeared to be rushing to impose such a sales tax within that city, has lost its immediate enthusiasm for the tax increase.
Paula Anderson, director of Puyallup’s New Hope Resource Center, said the center is scrambling to meet its monthly $7,800 expenses budget. Some donations have disappeared and two churches that previously shared the task of providing evening meals and overnight accommodations for up to 80 homeless people nightly have quit the program after more than a dozen years.
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“We’re struggling,” said Anderson as she greeted homeless clients last week who were waiting for a ride to South Hill Baptist Church on Wednesday night. South Hill is one of nine Puyallup-area churches that take turns providing the homeless an evening meal and a place to sleep.
New Hope has become a target for criticism from local residents who complained that the center attracted homeless clients who stole property, used drugs openly and trashed public spaces, such as the city’s River Trail. The city shut down the center for two months last spring and is creating new “high impact” licensing requirements that New Hope says it can’t afford to meet.
The federal Department of Justice is investigating the city’s treatment of New Hope for possible discrimination violations.
The two churches dropping out means that Freezing Nights has no overnight homeless beds seven nights monthly, including every Monday night. On an average night, more than 50 homeless people seek overnight shelter at Freezing Nights churches. On recent frigid nights, that number rose to 80 or so.
“We do the best we can,” Anderson said. “We’ve bought sleeping bags, we’ve arranged for them to stay with friends, and even some of our volunteers have taken them home for the night.”
Why the churches dropped out and donations have fallen is a matter of speculation. The churches declined comment last week.
It may be a matter of fatigue or changing priorities.
“When we originally started Freezing Nights, it was to be a temporary housing solution,” said Anderson. “The churches have now done it for 14 years.”
City and county officials agree that East Pierce County needs a professionally run overnight shelter and homeless service center.
Pierce County last summer removed approximately 100 homeless campers who had made temporary homes along River Road between Puyallup and Tacoma, and Puyallup cleaned up the River Trail campsites within its city limits. The camps have moved to new locations including an area near the intersection of state Route 167 and Meridian on state land and farther up the river valley.
The prospects for a permanent shelter in East Pierce County dimmed this month as both the Pierce County Council and the Puyallup City Council declined to enact a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax dedicated to helping the mentally ill and homeless population.
The Puyallup City Council, wanting to keep tax money collected in the city under city control, had scheduled an emergency meeting to vote on its own mental health tax. It later canceled that meeting when the county assured it the tax proceeds would be shared.
But in a surprise defeat, County Council members voted down the mental health tax earlier this month. County Council Chairman Doug Richardson has said he has no immediate plans to bring back for another vote.
Puyallup Deputy Mayor John Palmer said he believes the city can’t act alone.
“We need a regional solution,” he said.
Councilman Tom Swanson said a city-only tax would make Puyallup more of an outlier than it already is. Already, the city’s sales tax is 9.4 percent while neighboring Sumner’s is 8.8 percent.
“From my house,” Swanson said, “it’s just as easy to go shopping at the Sumner Fred Meyer than as it is at at the Puyallup Fred Meyer.”
Puyallup’s many car dealers, while they have yet to publicly complain about the prospect of a slightly higher sales tax, likely would oppose any tax increase, Palmer said.
“I don’t think they would like to be able to say, ‘Cars cost more in Puyallup,’ ” said Mayor Hopkins.