Politics & Government

Pierce County begins cleaning up River Road homeless encampment

R.J., who didn’t want to give his full name, looks out at the Puyallup River at a camp Monday. R.J. said he doesn’t live by the river full time, but does live there occasionally.
R.J., who didn’t want to give his full name, looks out at the Puyallup River at a camp Monday. R.J. said he doesn’t live by the river full time, but does live there occasionally. lwong@thenewstribune.com

A month after homeless campers along the banks of the Puyallup River were told they must move, teams of Pierce County workers Monday began enforcing the first phase of the eviction plan.

Social workers, cleanup crews and sheriff’s deputies visited some 20 encampments along the north side of River Road, said county communications director Libby Catalinich.

They reminded campers of the deadline Tuesday for their vacation of the camps and offered them help in finding new homes, health and addiction services, and cleanup assistance.

Catalinich said an estimated two-thirds of the riverbank camps had been vacated by Monday. As many as 100 homeless occupied the riverbank a month ago.

Social workers have spent much of the last month visiting with riverbank residents to learn their needs for help and to sign them up for available programs, Catalinich said.

“Many of them knew the residents by their first names,” she said.

Those who remain living on the riverbank Tuesday will be escorted away by law enforcement personnel, Catalinich said.

“They won’t be arrested, but they will get a law enforcement escort off of the riverbank,” she said.

Over the past 18 months, the river’s south side between Puyallup and Tacoma had become a haven for the homeless, who erected makeshift shelters and tents on flat areas adjacent to the busy arterial, River Road.

The network of homeless settlements extended into Puyallup along the River Trail.

The encampments and their residents stirred protests from Puyallup residents who complained of drug use, indecent exposure and thefts.

Puyallup officials over the last several months have coaxed and gently forced those homeless persons to leave.

Once the camps are abandoned, two private contractors hired by the county will clean up the campsites, Catalinich said. Cleanup activity began Monday on sites already vacated.

The contractors were removing accumulated trash and, in some cases, drug paraphernalia and human waste. The county will store personal possessions removed from the sites for former campers to claim.

The cleanup efforts in some cases can cost the county as much as $5,000 per campsite.

Once the cleanup is done, in about a week, county crews will begin clearing out brush and vegetation from the levees as required by the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates maintenance of flood protection structures.

Several camps on the river’s north side along Levee Road are on land owned by the federal government. They won’t be affected by this week’s eviction.

Catalinich said she didn’t know where the campers were moving to, although county social workers have found at least six of them more permanent housing.

In one instance, nine River Road campers told The News Tribune they had been moved to a rented house in Federal Way, but faced eviction there Aug. 1.

“One camper I talked with this morning said he had been camping along the river for about 10 years,” Catalinich said. “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.”

Once the cleanup is finished and the vegetation cleared, the county plans to regularly monitor the riverbank to make sure it doesn’t again become a homeless campground, Catalinich said.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663