As tensions rise over homelessness, some people decide to take justice into their own hands
Brian Heath, his fiancee Samantha Blackwell and their pit bull, Piper, live in a 1978 Dodge motorhome.
When they parked it across the street from Shaw Road Elementary School in Puyallup in September, it caused a stir — to say the least.
People fumed about Heath and Blackwell in posts on Nextdoor and Facebook. One man took it a step further, launching a campaign against the couple that got him charged with gross misdemeanor stalking.
Police and service providers in East Pierce County said they’re concerned about rising tensions when it comes to homelessness.
“This is an issue that has festered in our community for a long time, and there is growing frustration on both sides,” Puyallup Police Capt. Ryan Portmann said. “I think what you see sometimes is (that) people inject themselves into a situation, or they see a group of homeless folks gathering and they don’t like where they’re gathered, and they create a confrontation and that could lead to problems.
“In the worst case somebody gets hurts, or someone could be threatened.”
Others contend that growing unrest among those who believe homelessness is degrading quality of life is the result of leaders and police not doing enough to confront the problem. Some have taken matters into their own hands.
“These are people who are trying to fight for their community,” said Rhiannon Skog-Geffre, a Bonney Lake resident and creator of a group called Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs. “And if anyone thinks that a panhandler or these RVs that are popping up everywhere aren’t involved in drugs, they’re kidding themselves.”
Members of BLBAD patrol the streets, record video and take pictures of panhandlers and “squatters” they say are spreading drug abuse in their cities. Sometimes, they confront them.
BLBAD members also relay what they see to law enforcement, but some express frustration about response times and the fact that their targets aren’t arrested.
“We’re coming to a brick wall when it comes to law enforcement, so that’s why I think we get the reputation of being vigilantes,” Skog-Geffre said.
Clean Up Puyallup, organized on Facebook as “concerned citizens and concerned business owners interested in preserving and protecting downtown Puyallup,” has more than 4,700 followers and has been vocal about homelessness issues for years.
The group recently contacted BLBAD for suggestions.
“These guys are working hard to clean up Bonney Lake and Buckley. They have some great ideas,” wrote one Clean Up Puyallup moderator in a Facebook post.
Paula Anderson is the executive director of New Hope Resource Center in Puyallup, a drop-in center that provides homeless services.
Anderson worries that a group like BLBAD forming in Puyallup could lead to more aggressive interactions between frustrated residents and the area’s homeless population. Some of that is already happening, she said.
“They don’t even have to be doing anything other than just being visible,” Anderson said of homeless people being targeted.
‘INTO OUR OWN HANDS’
Blackwell, 29, and Heath, 47, called 911 on Sept. 18, to report that they had been threatened by people driving by their motorhome, which was parked in the 2700 block of 12th Avenue Southeast, near Shaw Road Elementary.
There also had been complaints to police about the motorhome and where it was parked.
Court and police records give this account:
An officer arrived about 8:40 a.m. on Sept. 18 to talk to Blackwell and Heath about moving their vehicle, which had been having mechanical difficulties. The couple later told The News Tribune they parked near the school because there is a gravel pad nearby large enough to accommodate their rig.
They told the officer that several people had yelled at them in the past day and that a man in a black Jaguar had been to the motorhome multiple times that morning.
They said he banged on the side and yelled that they would “feel the wrath” if they didn’t leave in 10 minutes. He yelled vulgarities, they said, and called them derogatory names.
As the officer was there, the Jaguar approached, and the officer flagged down the driver, later identified as Gary Wyatt.
Wyatt denied harassing Blackwell and Heath, according to police records.
The officer told Wyatt the motorhome was parked legally and that it was in the process of being repaired and moved.
Wyatt then allegedly pointed at the officer and said, “If something happens to any of the kids at this school ... if those people (Blackwell and Heath) get over the fence and kidnap a kid and rape them, it will be on you!”
Court records reviewed by The News Tribune show the couple have been charged with drug offenses in the past and accused of theft. The records do not show allegations of child sex crimes.
“We’re not sex offenders,” Blackwell later told the newspaper.
According to records, the officer ended the conversation, and Wyatt left.
The next day the officer returned to the motorhome to help get it towed.
Blackwell and Heath then told the officer Wyatt had driven past at least five times a day for a couple days. He shouted they were “perverts” and made threats.
They feared he would assault them and were afraid to go outside to work on the motorhome, they told the officer.
Police also learned that Wyatt had posted photos of the motorhome on the Nextdoor website. His posts were filed as part of the police report.
He wrote that others should join him in honking their horns when they drove by the motorhome and that he was upset that the officer and the city hadn’t done more.
“I am tempted to round up some of the boys and handle this since no one else seems to give a (expletive) about our community and kids!” he posted Sept. 17.
“We’ll see how long the Mexican standoff goes on for, cause if they were told to leave they have no intent on doing so. Matters may have to be taken into our own hands.”
Later, he posted about his interaction with the officer.
“These (expletive) called the cops on me for hanging out near them! I asked the officer for his kids’ school address and neighborhood so they can go there instead,” Wyatt wrote.
Many in the Nextdoor group thanked Wyatt for his efforts and echoed his frustration.
“Glad someone is sticking up for the neighborhood,” one post said.
“Gary, would a flamethrower help?” another asked.
A few were cautionary.
“Trust me, I have a daughter at Shaw Road and this sucks. But let’s let the system work properly it will be taken care of,” one said.
Wyatt, 48, was issued a summons to appear in Puyallup Municipal Court last month on two counts of gross misdemeanor stalking. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Feb. 21, and the court reminded him to appear at all future hearings in the case. The next one is scheduled for later this month.
Citing the criminal case, he declined through his attorney the opportunity to be interviewed for this story.
Puyallup Councilman Jim Kastama told The News Tribune that Wyatt contacted him and other City Council members about the RV.
“I know he was very upset about it and conveyed that to me,” Kastama told The News Tribune.
Wyatt also shared his frustrations at the City Council meeting Oct. 2.
“You could spit from these RVs and hit the playground, OK,” he told the council, according to a recording reviewed by The News Tribune. “It took five days. Count them:1-2-3-4-5 days for this action to be removed or for something to happen.”
He said residents turned to Nextdoor and Facebook to address the problem and questioned why “it took an army to get some action done.”
He ended by telling the council: “My neighbors are pissed. I am pissed, and we demand action. Thank you.”
Some people at the meeting applauded.
Kastama, who’s spoken openly about “well-known impacts of a homeless population: drugs, crime, prostitution, feces, needles and trash,” said Wyatt’s case represents the frustration of many.
“People, when their family, their children, their neighborhoods are threatened, they’re going to take these kinds of actions,” he said.
‘A NEVER-ENDING BATTLE’
Bringing charges against someone accused of stalking people experiencing homelessness is not common, police in East Pierce County said, despite allegations that it happens.
Observing and reporting criminal or suspicious behavior is encouraged, they said, but there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
“You cross the line when you begin to threaten people and begin to say that you’re going to harm people because of X, Y or Z,” Portmann said.
Police caution against intervention.
“We usually wouldn’t advise people to take the situation into their own hands, just because there’s so many things that could happen, and we try to protect everybody,” Bonney Lake Police Chief Bryan Jeter said.
Police leaders said they’re also frustrated because they’re often caught in the middle between those who want zero-tolerance homeless policies and those who want increased services for the homeless population.
“You hear about the revolving door of justice and that’s what we’re dealing with,” Jeter said. “I think that law enforcement gets blamed for a lot of that.”
“Our job isn’t really to get caught in the middle of that political fray. It’s to try to avoid that and apply the law equally to everyone, whether they’re homeless or housed,” Portmann said.
Anderson, the executive director of New Hope Resource Center, said she’s heard stories from those she works with of beatings and threats, of guns being pointed at them, of being yelled at on the streets.
She agreed police are in a tough spot.
“(Police) have to walk this fine line between the rights of the homeless and the rights of the citizens and try to mitigate as best they can. But it’s a never-ending battle,” Anderson said.
She said the big issue is lack of affordable housing. New Hope has served more people this year than ever before, with as many as 100 people coming in and out of the center daily.
James Pogue, director of homeless outreach for Comprehensive Life Services, said that nationally, homeless individuals are five times more likely to be victims of crimes and/or of harassment than the average population. The city contracted with the nonprofit last year for a pilot outreach program.
Data from Catholic Community Services shows homelessness steadily increasing in the Bonney Lake, Puyallup and Orting communities, with a total of 407 people as of March 15. Of those, more than 50 percent have been homeless for more than a year.
In respective cities, monthly homeless count varies. In Puyallup, the homeless population has steadily risen from 322 people in Sept. 2017 to 563 people in Feb. 2019, according to Catholic Community Services. In Bonney Lake, it’s remained stagnant, with 50 people in Sept. 2017 to 46 in Feb. 2019.
Pierce County’s Point-In-Time report also shows an increase in homeless population throughout the county from 1,464 in 2014 to 1,628 in 2019.
An unwelcome motorhome is something members of BLBAD have encountered before.
Skog-Geffre, who moved from Graham to Bonney Lake with her family in 2016, started the group after seeing pictures of “heroin camps” in the area and feeling many people lacked a voice when it comes to opposing them.
On Facebook, the group has nearly 300 members and aims to be the “eyes and ears” of the community and “lower crime rates, presence of panhandlers and sales/use of drugs,” according to its mission statement.
The group is willing to connect people who are seeking help to services — but not everyone wants help, Skog-Geffre said.
When told about Wyatt’s case by The News Tribune, Skog-Geffre said his actions might have gone too far but that she understood his frustration.
“How sad is that? A person that’s worried about this RV, possible drug activity being right by a school,” she said.
Skog-Geffre attends city meetings and shares what she sees with police, but she’s still frustrated.
“We have video footage of (police) showing up, searching the car, finding the heroin and letting the person go,” she said.
She also said change takes a long time. On March 17, the group installed its first “no panhandling sign” on a strip of land in front of the Bonney Lake Fred Meyer, which is often called “Tweaker Island” by members of BLBAD. They designed and installed the sign themselves.
It took two months to get permission from Kroger, which owns the strip of land, to put the sign there, Skog-Geffre said.
Skog-Geffre sometimes confronts panhandlers who stand there.
“There’s been many times where I’ve gone up with my bullhorn and called a panhandler out, like, ‘Oh, you have a house,’ or, ‘Oh, you’re not a veteran,’” she said.
Skog-Geffre said she’s been told by police that her actions could infringe on freedom of speech laws. She doesn’t feel it’s right that addicts can panhandle and buy drugs in her neighborhood. That’s where her viewpoints clash with police, she said.
“I have told Chief Jeter to his face, ‘I know one day that you’re going to have to arrest me. I know that,’” she said.
Members of Clean Up Puyallup recently reached out to Skog-Geffre for help. She said she was surprised by “how bad it’s gotten there.”
“If I can go and help navigate that with somebody else, that would really be my pleasure,” she said.
Clean Up Puyallup moderators did not respond to a question asking if the group planned to take its effort from Facebook to the streets.
The BLBAD group now shares crime-related posts from Puyallup on its Facebook page.
Police say they try to connect the homeless to resources — but there aren’t many services focused on the homeless in East Pierce County.
They suggested people turn to their political leaders for solutions.
The debate continues on what exactly those solutions should be.
Anderson said that the lack of affordable housing needs to be addressed.
“There’s no rent that people can afford on a fixed income,” Anderson said, adding she has more elderly people in her program than ever before.
Kastama said that homeless drop-in centers like New Hope lack accountability and clear transitions out of homelessness. He said progress won’t happen if homeless centers enable those who have addictions and don’t require them to change their behavior.
He said he applauds the Bonney Lake residents.
“I’m glad that they’re a community coming together to fight these things,” he said of BLBAD.
Kastama said it will take people standing up to make a change because political leaders are not taking a stand against powerful homeless coalitions.
“Most people believe that we’re still on a downhill slide … It’s going to get worse and worse,” Kastama said. “But I think the only way to turn it around is the public’s got to stand up, because they’re not going to find it in their political leaders.”
Blackwell said she’d like people to think about how many paychecks away they are from being homeless, should catastrophe strike. She said the answer is usually three to four, but that most don’t think about that.
“We’re human, too,” she said. “We’re all human. We’re all people.”
As for the online fuming, she said: “People are afraid of what they don’t know ... They’re using their imaginations, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
She and Heath said Wyatt’s not alone in his behavior and that they think the community’s response to the homeless has become more aggressive in recent years.
“It has progressed, the violence, people wanting to take it into their own hands,” Blackwell said.
“It’s becoming acceptable,” Heath said.
He noted that he’s lived in the South Sound since the ‘80s and that his teenage children from a previous marriage were born at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup.
They used to play soccer games at Shaw Road Elementary as children, he said.
“I’ve had about enough of all these ignorant people out here,” Heath said.
Minds, he said, are already made up.
“What do you do about people like Gary?” Heath asked. “They’re already set.”