The same attributes that attract families to Puyallup — its less complicated lifestyle, relative safety and tranquility — are the reasons that a growing number of homeless are camping on the riverbanks and under the bridges in the eastern Pierce County city, homeless advocates say.
“What are those homeless folks doing here? They’re trying to find a quiet, safe place,” Tacoma Rescue Mission Executive Director Mike Johnson told the Puyallup City Council last week. “After all, they’re looking for a beautiful, quiet, lovely neighborhood just like you.”
Johnson and a panel of social service experts testified before the council as the city continued its months-long effort to address community concerns about homelessness.
In March, the Puyallup City Council passed a six-month moratorium against new drop-in social service centers and emergency shelters following problems at the New Hope Resources Center, a drop-in center near downtown.
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Also before the council is a proposal to eliminate the legal exemption that allows a dozen or so local churches to offer overnight accommodations to the homeless during the coldest months of the year.
Against that backdrop, the panel of social service executives told the council that Pierce County needs about 200 more professionally run shelter beds to handle the growing homeless ranks in the county. Pierce County now has about 400 shelter beds, virtually all of which are located in Tacoma.
Denny Hunthausen, agency director for Catholic Community Services of Southwest Washington, said the new shelter beds should be located outside of Tacoma.
“Pierce County is approaching 1 million population. About 200,000 of that population is in Tacoma. The rest is in the suburbs and rural areas,” said Hunthausen.
“The Puyallup area is the metropolitan hub of East Pierce County. We need more beds, but they shouldn’t be in Tacoma.”
The council has spent many hours discussing homeless issues this year, partly in response to citizens’ complaints about public urination and drug use, property crimes and growing piles of trash along the city’s River Trail and the banks of the Puyallup River.
New Hope that has emerged as a lightning rod for much of the criticism. The city closed the center at 414 Spring St. earlier this year for building code violations. Now back in operation, New Hope is negotiating a new “high impact” business license with the city.
Critics have complained that the center, which provides social service referrals and lunches to the area’s homeless population, is laxly operated and a magnet for homeless migration to Puyallup.
Johnson told the council that New Hope isn’t the cause of residents’ concerns.
“It’s not service providers like New Hope that have attracted the homeless,” he said. “They popped up after the problem emerged to try to deal with it.”
Last week, the council was to have considered modifying an ordinance that gives churches an exemption from the usual standards for homeless shelter operations if they serve the homeless for less than 48 hours at a time.
For more than a decade, a dozen or so local churches have banded together in a program called Freezing Nights to offer overnight accommodations to the homeless during the coldest months of the year. Those churches have taken turns daily providing those beds.
The proposed amendment would remove the churches’ exemption and make them subject to stricter health and safety standards. Among those standards are requirements for criminal background checks and a daily limit of 40 homeless shelter beds in the city.
Mayor John Hopkins said the proposal was an attempt to be responsive to the public’s concerns. The city is worried by reports that the program is sheltering more than the maximum of 70 people and that the atmosphere is “stressful” even to volunteers who staff the program, he said.
“We are in a crisis situation, and it’s very appropriate to look at everything,” Hopkins said. “I don’t believe there is an attempt to close down Freezing Nights. The goal is to examine the program.”
Mike Boisture, a pastor at Puyallup Nazarene Church who helps run Freezing Nights, agrees the community is facing a crisis but says that the answer isn’t to undercut churches’ efforts to help. He said the program, which averaged 65 clients a night, just had its best year ever in terms of police and community complaints.
The council voted last week to postpone a vote on the exemption’s elimination. Hopkins later admitted the proposal was probably “ill-timed” and could benefit from more discussion.
At the meeting, Johnson told the council that a crackdown won’t keep the homeless away. Many, studies have shown, are victims of childhood abuse and broken homes. They seek to create their own small communities where they feel safe even if that means living in a tent or on a riverbank, Johnson said.
“They are very resilient,” he said. “They have learned to cope with people who threaten to beat them up.”
John Gillie: 253-597-8663
Staff writer Kim Bradford contributed to this report.