Senior mobile home residents near Puyallup blame homeless camp for crime

A mobile home park off of River Road East has seen an increase in property crime, and residents blame transients living in a riverside homeless encampment across the highway.

They say they’ve contacted the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and other county offices for help solving the problem, to no avail.

Sheriff’s officials say they’ve responded but won’t criminalize the homeless by assuming the reported crimes are related to the camp.

Riverside Villa, situated near the Puyallup River just outside the Puyallup city limits, is a community with 62 units mostly occupied by seniors.

In recent months, residents say they’ve frequently dealt with stolen solar lights, yard art and bicycles.

Many say they no longer feel safe walking along the river. They say prowlers have thrown rocks at their mobile homes and riled up their dogs in the middle of the night.

Cindy Mattson, a self-proclaimed cage rattler, said she believes the homeless people camping across the highway are responsible for the crime and ongoing disturbances.

Mattson said she reached a dead end after contacting county law enforcement and land-use authorities. So she reached out to her elected representative, Republican County Councilwoman Joyce McDonald.

McDonald showed up to a meeting at the community’s clubhouse Wednesday, thinking she would talk with Mattson alone.

What she found was a room filled with about 20 angry residents who bombarded her with questions and concerns, urging for a long-term solution.

Some of the complaints related directly to the camp — human and solid waste along the river bed, a violent dog standing guard around the camp’s tents and illegal burning, to name a few.

They also surmise that thefts from their mobile home park stem from the camp.

Many of the residents eagerly talked over each other, stressing that they fear the low-level crimes will escalate. Some said older residents and residents with disabilities aren’t equipped to confront anyone they feel is a threat to their property.

“It’s going to start getting worse,” resident Jim Fitzpatrick said. “That’s when people get hurt.”

Some acknowledged they know very little about the homeless people living in the tents by the river. Individuals could suffer from chemical dependency or mental health issues, they noted.

McDonald pointed to a mental health study recently authorized by the Pierce County Council. It will try to pinpoint where the mental health system doesn’t work and where improvements can be made.

But the residents at Wednesday’s meeting want more action.

It isn’t just their community that’s struggling with a rise in crime, they said. The neighboring Majestic Mobile Homes park and a nearby RV park are also contending with thefts and prowlers, they said.

“These guys are getting braver,” said resident Don Waddell, who complained about a prowler in his carport and theft of his outdoor solar lights. “Next time, I’ll get a gun.”

McDonald said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor and his department have made the issues at the encampment a low priority, which is part of the reason they’ve escalated.

“You can’t ignore low-level crime,” she told the group. “The more you ignore it, the more it increases.”

Of sheriff’s deputies, McDonald said: “They need to be enforcing the law.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer told The News Tribune it’s wrong to say the department doesn’t make low-level crime a priority.

A lack of resources makes it difficult to deal with all crime countywide, he said.

Moreover, Troyer said deputies can’t arbitrarily blame those living in the homeless camp for thefts in the mobile home park. Burglaries across Pierce County are up to about 40 per week on average, he stressed.

“That’s a countywide problem,” Troyer said. “We’re not going to label homeless people as criminals.”

He said sheriff’s deputies have tried to shut down the camp, which has a varying number of people living there at any given time — as many as dozens, he said.

“We’ve cleaned it up multiple times,” Troyer said. “We can clean it out, and then it’s back immediately.”

He noted that relocation of the camp is not a long-term fix to the problem, since many people there struggle with mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction or other issues that require comprehensive services the county lacks.

Transients must have somewhere to go, he added.

“Obviously, nobody wants it in their backyard,” he said. “So we need to find a better solution.”

McDonald said she’s working to do more. She told The News Tribune after Wednesday’s meeting that she will likely bring the issue before the County Council soon. She plans to coordinate a meeting involving several county departments, including the sheriff’s.

The challenge will be finding funds to follow through.

“We just don’t have extra money in the budget,” McDonald said.

Mattson, the Riverside Villa resident, acknowledged that it’s not easy to relocate homeless people who already might have been driven out of neighboring cities.

Still, she wants to see a better plan for dealing with the problem.

In the meantime, Mattson said she and her neighbors are exercising caution.

“I won’t go out after dark,” she said.