Matt Driscoll

Puyallup’s plan to send its homeless to Tacoma is as backward and misguided as it sounds

A regional crisis, requiring a regional response.

For as long as Pierce County has been dealing with an increase in homelessness that has been aptly described as a crisis in many jurisdictions, leaders throughout the county have repeated this mantra.

It’s going to take all of us to get the job done, they warned, often at dour press conferences or with the release of each year’s Point In Time count findings.

One city — Tacoma, in this case — cannot do it alone, they accurately cautioned.

Predictably, Puyallup — a city once ingloriously inducted into the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s “Hall of Shame” — has now offered its rebuttal.

“Hold my scone,” Puyallup — the land of “generous people” — effectively said.

As The News Tribune’ Josephine Peterson reported last week, the city’s latest harebrained plan involves using the city’s police force to shuttle individuals to the Salvation Army in Tacoma. The city is paying $65,000 for the right to utilize housing and other services for up to 14 people at a time.

The first time Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards heard about the plan was when our reporter called.

Nice.

Of course, a city deflecting its responsibility and instead choosing to literally ship individuals experiencing homelessness out of town — by bus, or in this case via police escort — is the type of thing that would typically invoke shame and, hopefully, embarrassment. As it should.

In Puyallup, however, such a backward approach appears to be a matter of pride. Perhaps the city will even build a float for next year’s Daffodil Parade in honor, and let community outreach officer Jeff Bennett drive it, too.

“Something is better than nothing,” Puyallup Police Chief Scott Engle told The News Tribune of the plan, explaining that he bristles — in Peterson’s words — at the idea that some might view it in a negative light.

“We don’t have a lot of options or solutions for folks,” Engle added.

Unfortunately, Engle is right on both fronts. Something is better than nothing, and — in Puyallup — there are virtually no other options or solutions for individuals experiencing homelessness, especially of the challenging, chronic variety.

Hopefully this scheme manages to help a few people, though those who spoke to Peterson expressed understandable reluctance. They’re — you know — from Puyallup, and don’t want to be forced away from friends and family. Hard to blame them.

But why are there no options in Puyallup you might be tempted to ask. Surely there must be a reason for this mysterious and glaring oversight, right?

Simple. It’s because Puyallup’s elected leaders — again and again — refuse to act responsibly, or even acknowledge that homelessness is an issue they have a responsibility to address in a meaningful way.

In Puyallup, homelessness is too often viewed as a big city problem. That’s what this so-called plan once again illustrates. Listen to some city leaders bloviate on the subject, and you get the distinct impression their preferred reaction would be to build a wall around the third-largest city in the county and make the homeless pay for it.

Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to give them any ideas.

To be certain, Puyallup police — like Engle — deserve sympathy and understanding. They’re too often first-responders-by-default, left to fend for themselves in a no-win situation. Without real leadership from city hall, police are stuck on the front lines with nothing to offer, while predictable anger and frustration builds on all sides.

It’s also true that the failing here is not Puyallup’s alone. The county — which oversees and funds most housing and human services programs — has been slow and at times downright neglectful in the way it has responded to the region’s homelessness crisis. One sad trip down memory lane, reliving the county’s laborious and ultimately futile 2016 attempt to pass a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for behavioral health services, is the only reminder one needs.

Still, none of this excuses Puyallup — and its majority of feckless elected officials — who have ushered things to this embarrassing point.

Instead of working with one of the only service providers in town attempting to help a chronic homeless population that vexes the city, making it better and more effective in the process, Puyallup’s leaders have chosen to do battle with it. In the process, they’ve falsely turned the facility into a scapegoat for the city’s problems.

Instead of thoughtfully drafting policies and zoning decisions that encourage more homeless-related services — while also balancing the real impact on local businesses and residents — the city council opted for draconian measures that all but ensured none would be able to open in the future. (To no great surprise, the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board recently ruled against the council’s efforts.)

And instead of doing something proactive to generate revenue to fund the behavioral health and homeless-related services the city desperately needs, in 2016 Puyallup deferred that job to the county.

While Puyallup, in this rare instance, had a valid point in allowing the county to take the lead on a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax, once votes on the County Council failed to materialize nothing prevented Puyallup from revisiting the subject.

That, fair reader, has not happened.

By the way ... you know what city does collect a sales tax for behavioral health services?

Tacoma — where Puyallup will now be sending any homeless person it can coax into a squad car.

Back in 2016, in deferring the sales tax question to the county, Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto wrote that residents of his city wished to “benefit equitably within the context of a regional system.”

It’s a nice idea, and one worth pursuing. It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

But you know what the key to a functional regional system is, Puyallup?

Doing your part.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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