Homelessness is, once again, on the ballot in Puyallup.
If you need proof, look no further than the City Council candidacy of Matt Cuyle.
With filing week barely in the rear-view mirror, Cuyle, who describes himself as a former Marine and current local business owner, has made Puyallup’s response to homelessness a top issue in his quest to unseat current District 1 Councilwoman Robin Farris and best fellow challenger Curtis Thiel.
In the coming weeks and months, Cuyle’s candidacy will put Puyallup to the test.
Just how fed up and angry are voters with the city’s response to homelessness, and how far are they willing to go to do something about it?
For better or worse, we’re about to find out.
Perhaps one episode, more than any other, epitomizes Cuyle’s stringent stance on the matter.
A trespass order issued against him three years ago, barring him from being on the property of Puyallup’s New Hope Resource Center, stands as a lasting reminder. The incident that led up to the order is something a still shaken Cheryl Borden, former New Hope Resource Center director, said she won’t soon forget.
In April 2016, Cuyle and local business owner Tim Mellema embarked on what Mellema described this week as a “safety check” along the Puyallup River and nearby railroad tracks. In an interview with The News Tribune, Mellema said school bus drivers had expressed concerns about safety related to homeless encampments in the area.
Both men acknowledge being armed at the time of the check.
For Cuyle, being armed is not unusual. The candidate told The News Tribune that he has a concealed carry permit and frequently carries a firearm, describing it as his “Constitutional right.”
Mellema said he was openly carrying a Glock pistol that day because his concealed carry permit was expired. He told The News Tribune that the decision to arm himself was at least partially due to safety concerns. He described Puyallup, and specifically areas where people experiencing homelessness are known to camp, as “dangerous” places.
After canvassing areas along the river and the railroad tracks, Cuyle and Mellema parked their truck at a hair salon near the New Hope Resource Center at 414 Spring Street. While at the river, they’d retrieved a number of items they suspected of being stolen and hoped to find the rightful owners, they said.
The items included “a few lawn chairs,” according to an internal report filed by Puyallup officer Jeff Bennett, and a bench later determined to belong to New Hope.
“Mellema advised that if the police weren’t going to police the issue, he was,” Bennett wrote in his report.
“We went down there to recover stolen furniture … and other stuff,” Cuyle told The News Tribune recently, explaining that he had seen people posting online about “all sorts of stuff being stolen off their porch.”
“We didn’t necessarily know it had been stolen,” Cuyle acknowledged. “But you and I both know the odds are in that favor.”
According to Bennett’s report, a “mild verbal altercation” ensued between the men and Borden.
Borden called police because she was afraid, she told The News Tribune, and worried that what felt like a volatile situation was on the verge of getting out of hand. She remembered Cuyle and Mellema arguing with New Hope clients, accusing them of “stealing this bench out of someone’s yard,” she said.
“What it felt like to me was that they were trying to engage in a conflict with some of the guests to have a reason to maybe shoot someone. I didn’t know. They had these guns, they were showing them, and they were being so verbally aggressive,” Borden said.
“I was concerned,” Borden added. “It felt like they were trying to get something going.”
Though police concluded no criminal wrongdoing had taken place, two days later, according to Bennett’s internal report, Cuyle and Mellema were issued trespass orders at Borden’s request.
According to the Puyallup police, trespass orders can be requested by a private party to “deny access to a person if they choose.” The orders against Cuyle and Mellema remain active, according to information available to the department.
“They just didn’t want me to go on to the property,” Cuyle told The News Tribune. “That’s all.”
He downplayed the alleged altercation and dismissed Bennett’s characterization of it.
“If they were fearful, it was out of ignorance. They don’t know me,” Cuyle added of Borden’s reaction at New Hope that day.
On his campaign Facebook page, Cuyle has spoken out against services and attitudes he believes are enabling “vagrants” and “transients.” While Cuyle tells The News Tribune that there is addiction and homelessness in his family, and that he supports increasing services like mental health and “sober living” facilities, he draws a hard line between these offerings and ones that “don’t hold (people) accountable.”
He says New Hope, which has become the epicenter for the city’s simmering homelessness debate, falls into the latter category, despite its stated aim of connecting people experiencing homelessness to jobs, housing, mental health services and clothing.
“This isn’t about the homeless. This is about transients and addicts and mentally ill people,” Cuyle says. “We need to stop enabling them. We don’t need places that allow them to be intoxicated or on drugs or off their meds and on the streets.”
Borden has a different view of New Hope, and particularly of what Cuyle’s candidacy represents.
“My experience with him is that he’s not interested in engaging in any solutions whatsoever. He just wants all of the homeless people to be out of Puyallup,” Borden said.
“In my experience, probably about 75 percent (of New Hope clients) are from Puyallup. That’s our community. They went to high school here. They were raised here. They have connections here,” Borden continued. “I don’t know that (Cuyle) just not wanting any homeless people (in Puyallup) is necessarily going to be that realistic.”
Come August, when the primary rolls around, it will be up to voters to decide.
It could be the clearest indication yet of just how ugly things in Puyallup have really gotten.