Puyallup may impose new rules on homeless center despite lawsuit threats

The seven-month wait for Puyallup to decide what new rules will govern a controversial homeless aid center could end next week.

That’s the message Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto delivered Tuesday night to a City Council some residents have accused of inaction in the face of problems linked to the city’s homeless population.

Yamamoto said the city has proceeded carefully in its attempt to craft new rules for the New Hope Resources Center to help diminish the problems some clients have brought to the city.

“We want to get this right,” he told the council.

The city has been working with New Hope since midsummer to create new regulations that the center can live with, while addressing complaints neighbors and business people have lodged about the center. New Hope is a nonprofit organization staffed largely by volunteers that provides referral services, lunches and other aid to homeless people.

Those proposed rules, which the council calls “high-impact business regulations,” have included requirements for additional security at New Hope’s downtown center, more careful screening of New Hope clients, loss of services for clients who cause problems in the community and heightened New Hope responsiveness to resident complaints.

In meetings and hearings throughout the past year, hundreds of residents have appeared to complain about increased crime, drug use, disruptive behavior and trash-strewn homeless campsites in public spaces. More than 100 people turned out for Tuesday’s council session.

So far, the city and New Hope have not reached agreement on the new rules, Yamamoto said

New Hope has said some of the city’s proposed rules are financially impossible to fulfill and would hold New Hope responsible for behavior off its property that it can’t control. Some of those rules may violate constitutional rights, lawyers for homelessness groups have said.

The lengthy negotiation process, the city manager said, “is not an indication that city management has lost its resolve.” The city, he said, is under “tremendous pressure” to address resident complaints.

Puyallup has set an internal deadline of next week to decide whether to continue the discussions or to impose the rules as drafted.

If Puyallup imposes those rules, he said, it risks triggering a lawsuit from attorneys representing the homeless center and legal challenges from the federal Department of Justice. If it loses in court, the city could find itself governed by a consent decree that subjects its decisions regarding homeless matters to federal oversight, Yamamoto warned council members.

The city should resist the impulse “to charge the hill” if it can reach a voluntary agreement with the center, he said.

A lawsuit could prove to be lengthy and expensive, said Yamamoto. The city already has spent more than $50,000 for the services of a Seattle law firm to help it respond to Justice Department information requests and to advise it on navigating through the legal minefield of homeless people’s rights.

Yamamoto said Wednesday that city staff have considered whether the Justice Department’s interest in the city’s homeless policies could change under the Trump administration. But he thinks it likely won’t.

Council members were of two minds about how to proceed. Councilman Dean Johnson said he is convinced that the city has done nothing wrong.

“I respect the administration’s effort to protect the coffers,” said Johnson. “You should do that.”

“But as a policymaker, I want to protect the rights of the people,” he said. “ Sometimes you have to stand up against something that’s unjust, and that can cost you a little bit.” His remarks drew a murmur of approval from the audience in the council chambers.

Councilman Kevin Swanson warned against getting entangled in a protracted legal war. “I want to see resolution of this. I’m not interested in slugging it out in the courts for five years so we can hold up a decision and say, ‘We won.’ 

Legal fights, he said, could gobble up resources that would be better spent on drug and mental illness treatment programs that would help solve the problem.

Residents told the council in public testimony that they want action.

“We have been doing this dance with regard to New Hope for over a year now with absolutely no results,” Matt Cuyle said. “It’s time to stop the discussion and do the work that you were elected for.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663