Matt Driscoll

Puyallup’s head-in-the-sand attitude toward homelessness is causing trouble elsewhere

The Spooner family has been working 11 acres of land near the Puyallup-Pierce County line since 1882. That’s five generations.

A hardworking, straight-shooting lot, the Spooners have grown a lot of berries, corn and pumpkins in that time. They’ve also faced plenty of challenges. It goes with the territory.

The family’s latest challenge is a new one, even to them. The farm, and the Foothills Trail that runs along the property’s western edge, have become the latest battle ground in Puyallup’s contentious and long-simmering homelessness crisis.

It’s a crisis the city of 40,000 has struggled to respond to, and, in most meaningful ways, hasn’t.

The result, which you could have seen coming for a country mile, is that a homeless camp has sprung up on a wetland hillside at the very edge of the city, butting up against the Spooners’ farm and the heavily traveled recreational trail.

This is precisely what happens when a city buries its head in the sand, shuts down unauthorized encampments in more visible areas of town without a real plan for what’s next and pretends like homelessness, behavioral health and addiction are someone else’s problems.

They are not. They also are not new. And they are not unique to Puyallup.

The city’s leaders wouldn’t have to look far for some solutions.

The city of Tacoma’s response to its own homelessness crisis, while flawed in some aspects, represents a real acknowledgment of scope and municipal responsibility. Both are steps Puyallup would be wise to emulate.

In Seattle, the work of the city’s 22-member Navigation Team is worth considering.

As a recent report from the Seattle Times’ Vianna Davila highlights, the team, which is comprised of cops and outreach workers, is specifically tasked with “both trying to coax homeless campers into shelters and removing encampments the city has deemed unsafe.” While it doesn’t always work, and the partnership is far from a silver bullet, it too is a reality-based response that shows far more promise than playing dumb.

Back on the farm, the Spooners say they’ve largely been blindsided by what’s popped up in their backyard.

“We’ve never really had to worry like we worry now,” Rebecca Heslep, whose parents Jeff and Andrea Spooner own the farm, told me Wednesday.

The family has a laundry list of complaints.

In September, a pack of dogs mauled a calf at the farm, ripping off the animal’s ears, according to Sam Spooner, Rebecca’s brother.

A few months earlier, a man stole a vehicle from the farm, taking $5,000 worth of pumpkin seeds with him, Sam and Rebecca said.

Two weeks ago, another man brazenly walked into a home on the Spooner Farms property in the early hours of the morning and stole a purse and a cell phone. Jeff and Andrea were home at the time. Heslep described the episode as “terrifying.”

The exasperated farmers believe all of it is related to the large homeless encampments that have grown in the last several months in the woods not far from their fence line. They’re certain of it.

It’s an accusation that, at this point, can’t be proven. Puyallup police note a lack of hard evidence connecting the crimes to the encampment and the existence of a neighboring property with an owner with history of harboring troubled individuals with nowhere else to go.

Known on the ground as “The Farm,” the private residence is next to the Spooner’s property and was the target of a significant police response in May, 2017, resulting in six arrests and 18 total contacts. So the suspicion that some of the trouble might be emanating from it isn’t coming from nowhere.

Still, there’s no denying the large homeless encampment just off the edge of the Foothills Trail. It’s very real.

It should have never been allowed to get to this point.

After their parents’ home was broken into two weeks ago, Sam and Rebecca ventured into the woods. They were dismayed by what they found.

“We kind of knew there were some people living back there,” Sam said of the foot-beaten path that can be seen from the Foothills Trail. “We thought it was one or two people. But we went down there … and it’s just a never-ending maze of tents and garbage. It’s just mindboggling.”

On Wednesday, Sam, Rebecca and I ventured into the area again. We encountered between 20 and 30 makeshift shelters of varying degrees of quality, and lots and lots of garbage.

The handful of residents we ran into were predictably less than hospitable. When journalists start making visits to a homeless encampment, it usually means a sweep is nearing.

“Get out of the woods! You’re not welcome here!” shouted someone from the trees and overgrowth.

The Spooners’ frustration is only exasperated by the fact that their farm is in the jurisdiction of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, and the encampment is on land owned by the city of Puyallup, so the law enforcement response they get has little power to address what they see as the issue. The Sheriff’s Department has responded to Spooner Farms multiple times since September, records show.

While they won’t expressly say it, frustration also would be understandable from the Puyallup Police Department.

The city’s cops — led by community outreach officer Jeff Bennett — have largely been left to deal with Puyallup’s homeless crisis, without tangible resources or much leadership from City Hall.

Asked about the encampment this week, as well as the Spooners’ growing concerns, Puyallup police spokesman Scott Engle acknowledged that the department is well aware of both.

Engle said that, compared to other unauthorized encampments the city has cleared, this one hasn’t generated similar calls for service or concerns for health and safety.

“We are aware that there are probably between 20 and 30 homeless citizens that are living on the property,” Engle said. “We do regularly visit that property. There is no plan to move or force people off.”

That, of course, is not what the Spooners will want to hear. The family is quickly running out of patience.

Meanwhile, Puyallup’s police force remains caught in the middle. They could decide to clear the encampment, but without a real plan of action from Puyallup City Hall, there’s nowhere else for those folks to go.

“There just are not a lot of resources available, period,” Engle said.

Which means they’d move to another unauthorized area not unlike the land near Spooner Farms.

We’ve seen it before.