Puyallup: News

Puyallup has paid more to attorneys defending its homeless laws than to service providers

The City of Puyallup has spent more on legal matters connected to homelessness over the past five years than it has helping local nonprofits that serve those in need, according to records obtained by The Puyallup Herald.

Since 2014, Puyallup has spent at least $1,099,724.54 on:

Attorney’s fees in two lawsuits involving homelessness.

Cash to settle a third suit brought by people who lost belongings during a raid on a homeless camp.

Legal expenses tied to a federal investigation into the city’s restrictions on Puyallup’s only shelter serving homeless folks.

Over that same period, the city has distributed $872,900.58 to agencies and organizations who serve those in need, including the homeless population, like The Puyallup Food Bank and Helping Hand House.

Mayor John Palmer told The Puyallup Herald that city actions on homelessness that led to litigation were necessary to address a problem that had gotten “out of control.”

“It helped improve the city and achieved initial objectives, but as it’s unfolded — the litigation — we want to minimize that moving forward,” said Palmer, who is seeking re-election.

Lawsuits related to homelessness have become an issue on the campaign trail, some City Council candidates told The Puyallup Herald.

District 1 City Council member Robin Farris, her opponent Curtis Thiel, and Palmer’s District 2 challenger, Paul Herrera, said they hear time and time again that residents are concerned with the amount of city litigation involving homelessness.

Three lawsuits

The New Hope Resource Center was at the center of two of the lawsuits.

Open limited hours during the day, the center offers meals and helps connect those without homes to resources for employment, housing, clothing, mental health and other medical care.

Neighbors have complained to the City Council about garbage, drug use and crime they contend is connected to New Hope.

Homeward Bound, The New Hope Resource Center’s parent non-profit, has sued the city twice in recent years over laws passed by the council.

The first lawsuit disputed an ordinance passed in 2016. That law placed operating restrictions on properties labeled as “significant impact businesses.” It required affected businesses to hire a security guard, enforce a code of conduct for patrons, build a fence and acquire outdoor lighting, garbage removal and a telephone line for community complaints.

The New Hope Resource Center at 414 Spring St. was the only location affected by the ordinance.

The city since has abolished the law.

Homeward Bound also went to court to challenge Puyallup after the City Council voted last year to pass an ordinance that restricted new providers serving the homeless to specified zones. The ordinance limited homeless shelters and drop-in centers to 41 parcels in the northwest corner of the city, where many of Puyallup’s manufacturing warehouses are located.

A state hearings board decreed this summer that the designated zones for homeless centers were not accessible enough through public transportation. The ruling also said the ordinance violated a city law that requires Puyallup to “promote a variety of housing for people with special needs, such as the elderly, disabled, homeless, and single householders.”

Puyallup is amending the law to meet the Growth Management Hearings Board’s recommendations. The City Council is expected to vote on changes this month.

In 2018, the city also was sued by six people after a raid on a homeless encampment cost them their medical records, a birth certificate, clothes, a GED, medicine and family photos. Puyallup settled with four of the plaintiffs for a total of $40,400 plus $100,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Outside counsel

Puyallup, like many cities, contracts out legal work on complex cases, including on land use or federal compliance issues, Mayor Palmer said.

Two Seattle-based firms, Calfo Eakes & Ostrovsky and Eglick & Whited, have received $774,083.34 to work exclusively on New Hope-related cases from January 2014 into July 2019, according to records obtained by The Puyallup Herald through a public records request.

Calfo Eakes & Ostrovsky was hired primarily to address the Department of Justice’s open investigation into the “significant business impact” law, Puyallup city attorney Joe Beck said.

Calfo began working with the city when the DOJ opened the investigation in December of 2016. Since then the firm has charged the city an additional $185,241.20. Once the city repealed the ordinance last month, the federal agency dropped the investigation.

In total, the city has paid for $959,324.54 for outside legal counsel defending laws surrounding homelessness.

Since 2014, neither Tacoma nor Lakewood have paid fees to outside attorney’s for court cases connected to homelessness, officials with those cities told The Herald.

Service grants

Since 2014, Puyallup has provided community grants to local nonprofits for a total of $872,900.58, according to records obtained by The News Tribune.

Any non-profit can apply, but the City Council prioritizes those with programs that serve city residents, according to the grant application.

While serving the homeless population is not a stipulation, many of the grantees have programs that help Puyallup residents avoid homelessness, feed those in need or shelter specific clients, like families experiencing homelessness or those experiencing domestic abuse. Recipients include All Saints Catholic Church, Helping Hand House, Homeward Bound, Puyallup Food Bank, and the YMCA.

Helping Hand House’s CEO Kevin Bates said the $321,500 received in the past five years has been instrumental. The Puyallup nonprofit helped local families find permanent housing. About 85 families with ties to Puyallup were placed into homes last year, Bates said. Puyallup’s grant accounted for 15 percent of their budget in 2018.

“We’ve got people in our community (who) understand that they need to share the resources to help,” Bates said.

Sister Pat Michaleck with the St. Francis House said the city’s $44,000 over the past five years has helped with rent and utility assistance for residents on the brink of homelessness. For those struggling to pay a month’s utility bills or rent, the charity will step in.

“It’s been a huge help,” Michaleck said. “We encourage clients to send a thank you note to the Puyallup City Council. It’s good for the families to know that the city is helping them, and most are very appreciative.”

Tacoma has included more than $28 million in its budget since 2014 for homeless service providers.

Lakewood, a city three times the size of Puyallup, has granted $2 million to community providers since 2014, according to spokesperson Brynn Grimley.

In addition to grants to service providers, Puyallup has used other methods to address homelessness, including the creation of a hot line last year that allowed business owners to call for help with connecting people experiencing homelessness to social workers and resources.

Puyallup’s Police Department added a community resource officer in 2015 to enforce city laws and connect homeless residents with available resources. Officer Jeffrey Bennett has been paid $639,084 over the past five years.

A recent contract with the Salvation Army for $65,000 provides Puyallup’s homeless access to shelter, resources and food. Puyallup police officers can ask folks experiencing homelessness if they are interested in the program, and, if so, the officers will drive them to Tacoma. The year-long contract provides 14 beds, six for men and eight for women at a time.

Council’s response

Council Members Farris and Jim Kastama represent District 1, where New Hope is located.

Farris said she hopes that the city decides to partner homeless service providers more than “legislate them into a corner.” Farris voted against last year’s designated zones for homeless service providers because she said she knew it would end in a lawsuit.

“What bothers me is that I think litigation should be the very last step,” Farris said. “Taking these cases to court is not a win-lose situation. We don’t win.”

Kastama has not responded to requests for comment. The former state senator said in a recent City Council meeting discussing the changes to the designated parcels for homeless services providers that the money spent litigating the ordinance was worthwhile to protect children.

Council member At-Large Dean Johnson has declined to comment.

Palmer said he hopes the litigation chapter of Puyallup’s response to the homelessness crisis is over and council members can be more collaborative with New Hope.

“It’s helped, but it doesn’t mean we’ve gotten rid of those experiencing homelessness, and we need to keep going on that path,” he said. “It’s complicated. I don’t think anyone has a magic wand on this.”

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.