Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Puyallup River homeless sweep is an exercise in futility

This camp by the Puyallup River was destined for removal this week.
This camp by the Puyallup River was destined for removal this week. Staff photographer

The stark reality of the homeless encampment cleanup underway along the Puyallup River was found toward the bottom of John Gillie’s reporting for The News Tribune earlier this week.

“One camper I talked with this morning said he had been camping along the river for about 10 years,” Pierce County communications director Libby Catalinich told this paper.

“He said he planned to move his camp to the riverbank in Orting. Once he was evicted from that site, he planned to return to River Road.”

Like it or not, this is what it’s come to along the banks of the Puyallup.

We’re not making progress. We’re not even putting a Band-Aid on a growing problem.

As a community, we’re flailing and we’re failing.

We have no real answers, because we don’t have the things we need — specifically, the housing, and to a slightly lesser extent, the available mental health and addiction services — that it would take to employ a strategy that moves the needle.

“That’s the challenging, frustrating and upsetting thing,” Catalinich acknowledged to me.

So, instead, we’re relegated to simply moving people along.

“That is the epitome of the story,” Jeff Bennett, the community outreach officer on the Puyallup Police Department’s Problem Oriented Policing Unit, said this week. “Yep, the county went down there, taxpayer dollars are going to be through the roof on the whole thing … and all you did was move it. Because of the lack of resources.”

Yep, the county went down there, taxpayer dollars are going to be through the roof on the whole thing … and all you did was move it. Because of the lack of resources.

Puyallup police officer Jeff Bennett

For Pierce County, the banks of the Puyallup River have become perhaps the closest thing we have to The Jungle in Seattle — a large-scale, unauthorized encampment where people experiencing homelessness have found refuge.

A survey this summer put the number in the ballpark of 100 people living in the area. All told, including the areas not included in the sweep, it was probably more.

And it’s not pretty. As anyone who’s ventured into these camps can tell you, there are significant health and human safety concerns. There’s trash. There are hypodermic needles. There’s human waste. And as we saw last year, living along the banks of the river is dangerous.

Most troubling, people in our community in these camps are suffering from legitimate mental health and addiction issues — people with almost nowhere to turn to for help.

“In East Pierce County, if I want to get somebody into a treatment program, I can hold their hand and walk them in, and that still doesn’t do much,” Bennett said, frustration evident in his voice.

“It’s so bad.”

Very few question that something needed to be done along the Puyallup River. And, to its credit, the county appears to have made attempts to conduct the clean-up thoughtfully. If there’s a ray of hope in all of this, Bennett said, it’s that area agencies are learning to work together.

Perhaps because of this growing understanding, those living along the river received notice of the sweep well in advance, and social workers have been making the rounds to connect people with the limited resources that we have. That’s good.

But it also brings us back to the main, inescapable problem here: these resources simply aren’t available at a level anywhere close to sufficient.

The housing is not there. The addiction programs are packed. The mental health beds don’t exist.

And even if social workers could convince someone that staying at a shelter was a better option — often a hard sell, given the rules regarding couples and pets, not to mention the understandable apprehension many homeless people harbor when it comes to relinquishing their autonomy for a hard cot on a cold floor — those are full too.

Puyallup doesn’t even have a homeless shelter this time of year.

“The shorthand for what you’re describing is referred to around here as outreach to nowhere,” said Tim Harris, the longtime Seattle homeless advocate and founding director of the weekly newspaper Real Change, when told of the Puyallup River homeless sweep and the work social workers have done in advance of it.

The reality is that these sweeps just temporarily displace people to somewhere else, and they’re going to come back and they do come back over and over again. It amounts to this war on homeless people. ... It’s a big waste of resources that doesn’t help anything. You’ve got to go more to the root causes.

Seattle homeless advocate and Real Change founding director Tim Harris

“The reality is that these sweeps just temporarily displace people to somewhere else, and they’re going to come back and they do come back over and over again. It amounts to this war on homeless people,” Harris continued. “It’s a big waste of resources that doesn’t help anything. You’ve got to go more to the root causes.”

Unfortunately, the problem is complex, and getting to the root causes is hard. Creating the solutions that might help the region’s homelessness epidemic are expensive, and they require political will from those at the top.

Sadly, this resource is lacking as well.

Meanwhile, the predictable results of this week’s futile sweep play out on the ground.

“We can kick all of these people out, and they will just filter away and then we will find them days later somewhere else. The outreach workers have already called me this morning to say they found a new camp inside the city limits,” Bennett revealed as we ended our conversation. “I suspect to see more of that for the rest of the week.”

“Where do you think these people are going to go?” the exasperated cop continued.

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