Puyallup’s latest crackdown on homeless people shows council lacks courage and compassion

Puyallup solved its homelessness crisis last month. The answer was so simple you might have missed it.

It didn’t take addressing rising rents or affordable housing, patching a depleted social-safety net, plugging huge gaps in the county’s behavioral-health system or putting an end to the growing opioid epidemic

Nope. It was the toilets.

As in, don’t give those experiencing chronic homelessness somewhere to do their business, and they won’t be tempted to do their business downtown.

A portable toilet sits near a parking lot near the Foothills Trail along the Puyallup River under state Route 512 in Puyallup, February 13, 2018. The Puyallup City Council voted recently to remove other portable toilets meant to serve people experiencing homelessness. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

OK, that’s a bit of a stretch.

Puyallup’s City Council wasn’t really trying to solve homelessness when it voted 6-1 to all but decimate a fledgling program designed to provide portable toilets in a handful of downtown locations. Instead, the motivation had more to do with sending a strong message: This is a city that will not “condone” the behavior of those experiencing homelessness, in the words of new City Councilman and longtime state legislator Jim Kastama.

The idea behind the program, which emerged from a city task force created in 2017 and made up of of local police officers and various city employes, was to help mitigate issues related to homelessness — specifically the undeniable reality that those without shelter need somewhere to go to the bathroom besides bushes and alleyways.

It soon became clear, however, that Puyallup’s council had other ideas. On Jan. 23, the council voted to curtail the pilot program and remove all but one of the planned toilets (three were initially called for, and one other, near the Riverwalk Trail, has been in place for two years and is effectively grandfathered in).

As Kastama so bluntly put it from the council dais, the decision to nix the portable toilets — which he championed — was crafted as a clear signal that Puyallup will not sit idly by and accept the “anti-social behavior” he attributed to homelessness.

This was about more than“defecating and urinating or shooting up heroin,” Kastama suggested. The toilets, which hadn’t been approved by the City Council, sent the wrong message, he said, while also inviting trouble.

While it’s true that efforts to install toilets in cities across the country for just this purpose have met mixed results, Puyallup’s pilot program was so new that any objective analysis of its impacts was impossible. (The toilet that was removed from downtown had been there for just shy of two weeks.)

Whether the program was paying dividends didn’t matter to Kastama.

“Rather than enforcing a standard of conduct in our downtown area that makes it safe, makes it clean, makes it family friendly,” the task force and the city’s administration — in their brazen attempt to provide toilets for those experiencing homelessness — chose to accommodate what Kastama sees as unwelcome behavior.

“I think that is … the wrong path to take,” he said. “This is the same thing that has happened in Seattle that now puts them in the spotlight, for heroin injection sites — which lack so much common sense. We don’t want that lack of common sense here. We want to protect this area.”

In a game of Suburban Fear Mongering Bingo, dropping a comparison to safe-injection sites and Seattle in the same breath fills up a lot of cards. It’s fiery rhetoric that, one might argue, lacks common sense, and certainly compassion — especially when talking about something as obvious as providing a few places for those experiencing homelessness to safely relieve themselves.

Unfortunately, this kind of talk resonates in Puyallup and on this council. Buoyed by a vocal group of constituents that’s sick and tired of having to deal with the seemingly growing number of the sick and tired on Puyallup’s streets, many of the city’s elected officials seem content to fan the flames and capitalize on the anger.

That’s the misguided mindset this vote speaks to.

This wasn’t about helping. This wasn’t about finding ways to lessen the local impacts of the region’s homelessness crisis. This wasn’t about proactive steps, critical, objective thinking or even balancing the unquestionable need for public safety while finding new ways to effectively address serious problems.

Put simply, this was about punishing and condemning a population composed mostly of single men and those dealing with behavioral-health and substance-abuse disorder that many in Puyallup wish would go away. It amounted to doubling down on a “get tough on homelessness” approach that’s about as likely to bear fruit as a raspberry patch in January.

Here’s what we know: The frustration in Puyallup is palpable and understandable. Walk around parts of downtown, past homes with “Clean Up Puyallup” yard signs out front, and you feel it. Listen to the speakers lined up for public comment during City Council meetings, and you can’t miss it.

These are real, complicated issues the city is facing, and anger from citizens isn’t surprising. It’s jarring to be confronted with visible homelessness on a daily basis. It’s exasperating to try to run a business in the midst of a crisis.

But, as tempting as it might seem, there’s also no way for Puyallup to wall itself off from reality. It’s up to elected leaders there to rise above the knee-jerk reactions and to help the city’s residents forge a path of progress rather than resort to Trump-like protectionism.

“Folks, we’re the leaders of the community,” Kastama implored before a vote to curtail the pilot project was official. “It takes courage to be leaders of the community.”

He’s right.

The problem, in this instance, is courage doesn’t mean what Kastama thinks it does.