Puyallup wants homeless to move on, but first it faces a legal obstacle course

Neighbors near Pioneer Park and the Puyallup Library are concerned about an influx of homeless people in the park at night, sleeping on the stage and at the entryway to the library. Emerald Ridge High School graduate Dennis Lindstrom, 25, had only a thin sleeping bag and a protest sign between him and the concrete Friday.
Neighbors near Pioneer Park and the Puyallup Library are concerned about an influx of homeless people in the park at night, sleeping on the stage and at the entryway to the library. Emerald Ridge High School graduate Dennis Lindstrom, 25, had only a thin sleeping bag and a protest sign between him and the concrete Friday. dean.koepfler@thenewstribune.com

A statue of Puyallup’s first mayor, hops mogul Ezra Meeker, presides over the city’s centerpiece, Pioneer Park. The view from Meeker’s pedestal shows a collection of handsome civic buildings bordering the park, the red brick library with its clock tower and colonnade, the glass-fronted pavilion and the five-story city hall.

But in recent months, some of Puyallup’s residents, particularly those living in new condominiums near the park, have become alarmed by another intermittent feature of Pioneer Park: an influx of homeless people.

That concern peaked a month ago, when some 20 homeless people took up residence in the park at night, sleeping on the Rotary stage and at the entryway to the library.

Citizens, including former Mayor Kathy Turner, called police.

“I moved downtown to enjoy the atmosphere we’ve created,” said Turner. “The park is my front yard.”

The police department sent seven officers, virtually the entire nighttime patrol contingent, to rouse the sleepers and ask them to move.

But persuading people sleeping in a city park to leave isn’t always as simple as getting someone with a badge and a gun to ask them to move on. Court cases have defined the limits of enforcement, say attorneys.

One issue police faced was that while they could evict people from the park because it was past the posted closing time, they couldn’t force those sleeping in front of the library to move. City ordinances didn’t include the library entrance as part of the park. (The council subsequently altered the defined limits of Pioneer Park to include the approaches to the library and the pavilion.)

That fine point of the law is typical of the delicate dance that police must follow to deal with homeless people in public places. Puyallup is particularly sensitive to those legal caveats because the Justice Department has put the city’s homeless policies under federal scrutiny.

Had transients been sleeping on benches or on the park’s lawn during the day, police couldn’t ask them to leave, City Attorney Joe Beck said. There are exceptions: If they’re blocking a building entry, interfering with government functions or putting their or others’ safety at risk, police can remove them, he said.

But generally the city and its police force needs to act carefully to protect the rights of the homeless whenever it takes enforcement action.

“All people have a fundamental constitutional right to sleep,” Beck recently told the City Council. “Laws which prohibit sitting, lying or sleeping on any street, sidewalk or other public way have often been found unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.”

What of anti-camping laws? Those too might violate Eighth Amendment rights when the city has no alternate shelter space available, the city attorney said.

Mayor John Hopkins said he’s particularly concerned about the Pioneer Park situation when the seasonal shelter program operated by local churches, Freezing Nights, isn’t available. Two churches dropped out of the program, leaving several nights monthly uncovered.

“It’s very disturbing to have people sleeping at the bandstand or in front of the library,” the mayor said. “I know that people need a place to go, but we need to protect our buildings.”

The legal limitations imposed on police can often be daunting to the public, who want officers to deal directly with a situation, Hopkins said.

Beck said the public might not understand why officers can’t act.

Puyallup in recent months has won the dubious honor of being named to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty’s “Hall of Shame” for its homelessness policies.

The center’s report focused on Puyallup and three other cities it said were using illegal means to handle homeless people.

“Even though there is no year-round emergency shelter available to the rapidly growing homeless population in Puyallup, the city has enacted a number of laws making it illegal to camp, panhandle, sit or lie down in large swaths of the city, or to be present in public parks after closing,” the center said.

“Moreover, the city has amended its trespass law to allow people to be banned from all public places within the city for up to five years if they violate any of these laws — an inevitability for homeless people who have no ability to comply due to a lack of alternatives.”

The city’s policies, Beck said, take careful note of legal cases and individual rights. The city typically does not enforce some of the ordinances the center found reprehensible.

The city attorney noted those limitations:

▪ Police cannot arrest people simply for sleeping or living in a vehicle. If they are occupying a no-parking zone or their vehicle is unsanitary or unsafe, police have more power.

▪ Public drunkenness and mental illness aren’t sufficient reasons for officers to intervene. If the intoxicated or mentally ill person commits a crime, police can take action. But because Pierce County is short of treatment beds, the mentally ill have almost no place to get help.

▪ An officer must personally see a person commit a non-felony crime in most cases to arrest them. Even if the circumstances allow an arrest, most people accused of committing minor crimes are released from jail while awaiting their trials.

▪ The city must proceed carefully in cleaning up and disposing of homeless persons’ debris and abandoned property. “Cleanup efforts are expensive, procedurally intensive and fraught with liability,” Beck said.

To clean up dozens of homeless campsites along River Road last summer, Pierce County gave campers several notices, provided social workers to offer help finding homes and hired outside contractors to do the cleanup.

The cleanup was particularly difficult and expensive because of the presence of drug syringes and human waste. The county paid roughly $5,000 per campsite for the cleanup.

▪ The old-fashioned method of removing the homeless from communities, driving them to the edge of town with instructions not to return or providing them a bus ticket to another community, is not a viable remedy, said Beck.

“It is illegal for the city to force or coerce anyone to leave the city against their will,” he told council members.

Private groups can provide transportation tickets to the homeless if they voluntarily want to reunite with their families out of town or to journey to another town to find a job or educational opportunity.

Puyallup in recent months is following the example of many other cities in asking business owners to sign “trespass agreements” that allow officers to enter a business without calling the owner to remove trespassing persons.

Police Chief Bryan Jeter said the city is concentrating on getting those agreements particularly from businesses that frequently have difficulties with unruly people. Some of those businesses are owned or affiliated with large corporations, so it often takes weeks to win corporate headquarters approval, he said.

The city’s focused efforts, he said, are beginning to bear fruit with calls for contacts with homeless people falling steadily compared with last year, the chief told the council.

The Department of Justice, which began its scrutiny of the city’s procedures late last year, has yet to say whether it plans to take action against the city or give it a passing grade for constitutional compliance.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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