Pierce County tells homeless to vacate riverbank encampments

VIDEO: Homeless notified to leave camps by River Road

Two homeless men who've been encamped along River Road talk about living there and what should be done.
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Two homeless men who've been encamped along River Road talk about living there and what should be done.

Pierce County took the first steps this week to remove a growing cluster of homeless campers from the Puyallup River banks along River Road between Tacoma and Puyallup.

Teams of social workers and law enforcement officers fanned out among the small tent settlements along the levee bordering the river’s south bank. County officials estimate that about 100 people are living there.

Tess Colby, Pierce County Community Connections manager, said the teams offered residents help in finding more permanent housing, in seeking treatment for mental illness and addictions, and with reconnecting with their friends and families.

If the campers fail to vacate their camps by July 25, said Pierce County Communications Director Libby Catalinich, sheriff’s deputies will evict them.

Tony Fantello, the county’s surface water management manager, said the county plans to clear brush and trash from the levee to allow inspection of the structure that channels the river.

Fantello’s department is charged with maintaining some 92 miles of levees along three rivers in the county. The Army Corps of Engineers recently enacted stronger rules regarding inspections of those levees, he said, necessitating the clearing of vegetation to carefully check them.

The county is likewise concerned, he said, about the danger to the campers when heavy rains raise the river level. The sheriff’s department performed a swift-water rescue last winter of one homeless man swept away from his riverbank camp.

Once the homeless vacate, the county plans to hire a private company that specializes in such campsite cleanups to remove trash and debris. Based on past experience, those cleanups can cost the county from $2,000 to $5,000 per site.

“It takes special skills and equipment to deal with the trash, the human waste and the drug debris we find in some of those sites,” he said. “We’re engineers and maintenance people and we’re not equipped to safely do that work.”

Some of the River Road campsites have been in place for more than a year. The cleanup follows an effort by Puyallup to end homeless camping along that city’s River Trail.

Fantello said the River Road levee was the site of the greatest concentration of camps, but other riverbanks throughout the county also have attracted homeless campers.

Tuesday’s effort allowed social workers to talk one-on-one to residents, and to enroll some who were willing into programs to help address their problems. The social work teams plan to continue working with those transients to get them help.

“The truth of the matter is that there are not a lot of housing resources available,” Colby said. “But we can get them on the list and offer them housing as it becomes available.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663