My childhood neighborhood in Puyallup is at the epicenter of the controversy over homelessness in East Pierce County. In the larger context, this is an example of how the politically powerful force the less powerful to pay the price for their altruism.
Located in the downtown area, my neighborhood is one of the most ethnically and economically diverse in the valley. You’ll find laborers and professionals living next door to each other – a tradition that dates to the days when timber barons, merchants and mill workers all lived in the same neighborhoods.
Although many homes are rentals and approximately half of our students qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, the neighborhood boasts a long history of stability, anchored by multi-generational families who prioritize education and public safety.
For these reasons I chose to live here rather than move to new housing developments on the North or South Hill.
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In 2014, without neighborhood input, the New Hope Center, a homeless drop-in center, was placed within a block of our elementary school and within two blocks of our junior high.
During its first year, the center attracted more than 500 homeless people, mostly males. With them came an increase in crime.
I personally experienced an attempted burglary, prowling, both my daughters’ bicycles stolen and two car break-ins. Discarded needles, human waste, drug dealing, garbage, and prostitution were all common complaints of neighbors. Hundreds of calls to police poured in, directed at the center.
To defend ourselves, the community organized a group called Clean Up Puyallup. As imperfect as the name is, it seemed appropriate given the tons of garbage left by the homeless.
For this, we have been called “NIMBYs,” “hateful” and “unChristian” by homeless advocates. They have even threatened to sue the city with the aid of a Seattle law firm. To this day, the center refuses to acknowledge its error in placing the center so close to an elementary school.
Contrast this, however, with the treatment received by upper-income neighborhoods. In 2012, a proposed halfway house for 4 to 5 sex offenders was to be located near wealthy housing developments on the South Hill in Puyallup. Even though the facility would be regulated by a state agency, the City Council made sure it never opened.
Likewise, upper-income neighborhoods in North Tacoma, Northeast Tacoma, Gig Harbor and University Place have no facilities like the New Hope Center.
It’s a script that’s played over and over again in cities all over the Northwest where elected officials, attorneys and philanthropists make policies that favor the homeless and then retire to the safety of their cloistered neighborhoods.
Particularly offensive is the rejoinder “What’s your solution?” as if to imply that harm to my neighborhood is acceptable collateral damage in their efforts to aid the homeless.
Perhaps a more equitable solution would be to distribute the homeless burden to all neighborhoods. Instead of allowing churches to house them at night and then release them the following morning into my neighborhood, require churches to provide services for the entire day in their respective neighborhoods.
Another potential solution is to proactively identify homeless individuals and provide one-on-one counseling for employment and/or addiction issues. Such a service could be provided without an actual center, which can attract homeless persons from outside the city.
Ultimately, the Clean Up Puyallup group believes the best solution is to close or relocate the New Hope Center, especially given the proximity to hundreds of young school children.
But none of these options will be considered as long as neighborhoods like ours sit back and allow others to foist on us the true costs of their altruism.
Our neighborhood is proud of what we have accomplished, given our challenges. However, we feel like a boxer who is winning the fight with one arm tied behind his back.
We are not about to let someone tie the other arm, too.
Jim Kastama is a former state senator and representative from Puyallup, serving from 1996 to 2012. He works as a strategic planning and technology consultant.