Four Puyallup City Council seats are up for grabs in the general election Nov. 3. Three incumbents face challengers in their re-election quest while two newcomers vie for the seat being vacated by Mayor John Knutsen.
Among other important issues, homelessness is on voters’ minds following discussion of the issue at many public meetings, including last week when the council adopted a public property trespass ordinance.
The City Council has increased its involvement in homelessness issues in recent years. The city organized a task force in 2013 to do a study and bring recommendations to the council. They included proposed creation of a daytime drop-in center for homeless people seeking social services, an idea that led to the privately run New Hope Resource Center downtown.
Other task force proposals included exploring an alcohol impact area and re-evaluating the city’s encampment ordinance, issues that have yet to be reviewed further. Currently, churches and faith-based groups in Puyallup can obtain permits for temporary homeless camps on their property, though none have been set up.
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The council has also approved funds from the city budget to support Puyallup social service providers.
All eight City Council candidates told The News Tribune more must be done to address homelessness in Puyallup.
The at-large incumbent says Puyallup shouldn’t serve as a refuge for transients from elsewhere. His challenger says independent groups, not the city, should work to help homeless individuals transition into the community.
Incumbent Steve Vermillion says the Freezing Nights program, which provides nightly shelter during cold months, has essentially turned Puyallup into a homeless center for Pierce County. He acknowledged that the nonprofit means well, but said it’s catering to more people from cities outside Puyallup than it should.
“The word is getting out that this is a place to come if you are homeless,” Vermillion said.
He believes the influx attracts public nuisances, leading to spikes in public intoxication, panhandling and theft.
Vermillion said he doesn’t believe the city has the resources to lead the charge on homelessness issues.
His opponent, Dean Johnson, said local social service providers need to focus on quality of services, not quantity. The city should take a responsible approach and not allow a community of loiterers, he added.
“We need to address it compassionately, but we can’t compromise our public safety,” Johnson said.
He said the city is responsible for the well-being of three primary groups: residents, businesses and tourists.
Johnson said the city should work with faith-based groups and nonprofits to support their efforts.
“We want them to take that fourth group of (homeless) people and help them immerse into one of those three other groups,” he said.
DISTRICT 1 POSITION 1
One of the candidates vying to fill Knutsen’s council seat wants targeted solutions for homelessness services. The other hopes to hire a support staff member for police, who often respond to homeless people in the city.
Pat McGregor, who served on the city’s homelessness task force in 2013, said he wants clear rules for social service organizations. He said the city hasn’t done enough to articulate its role in serving the homeless.
“The city needs to say what we can and can’t do,” McGregor said. “We’ve been indecisive with how we are going to serve.”
He said he believes that role should be to help coordinate services, not be the sole provider of them.
McGregor said he doesn’t think Puyallup has criminalized the homeless, as some have claimed. But he believes more could be done for the safety of those who don’t have anywhere to sleep.
His challenger, Robin Farris, also said the city should serve as a services coordinator. She said she would advocate hiring a social worker at the Police Department to help officers respond to homeless people who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.
Farris said a big part of the homelessness problem in Puyallup is the city’s lack of action. Officials have talked a lot without following through.
For example, she said the city didn’t go as far as it should have to implement the homelessness task force’s recommendations. The city should bring disparate service providers together, she said.
“We need to take more action to get everybody on the same page,” Farris said. She added that state and county representatives need to address the gap in services for behavioral health.
DISTRICT 2 POSITION 1
The District 2 incumbent wants to find a balanced approach to supporting social service providers without ignoring the negative impacts on the community. His challenger says Puyallup has become a “bed and breakfast community” for the homeless that risks a culture of “reverse discrimination” against residents and businesses.
Incumbent John Palmer acknowledged homelessness is a tough issue and said local nonprofits have offered generous services.
Still, Palmer said Freezing Nights could do a better job screening participants to avoid regular police response to public intoxication and other incidents. A small number of the homeless people in the program are public nuisances, he noted.
“It’s just a few bad apples that cause most of the problems,” Palmer said.
He said any help provided should go beyond a meal and a bed. Homeless people need resources to get back on their feet, he stressed.
New Hope Resource Center downtown is already beginning to do that, Palmer said, but more should be done.
His opponent, Keith Sherrill, said Puyallup is fostering a loitering population that’s driving away potential consumers downtown. He said the city hasn’t exhibited leadership, it’s merely “put a Band-Aid” on the problem.
“It’s not really helping anyone,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill, who recently went on a police ride-along, noted that most of the homeless people with whom officers interacted were from outside Puyallup.
He said serving people who contribute to the city should be the priority.
“I don’t have a perfect solution right now,” Sherrill said. “But I do know that we can’t wish it away.”
DISTRICT 3 POSITION 1
District 3 candidates both see homelessness as a regional issue. The incumbent says the conversation needs to change, while his challenger says ongoing discussion has failed to spur action.
Incumbent Tom Swanson stressed that the solution lies in addressing the root causes of homelessness.
“We need to stop thinking of it as a problem,” Swanson said. “Homelessness is an outcome of other problems.”
Those problems include mental illness and chemical dependency, he said, problems that even the most dedicated volunteers struggle to deal with.
He said the city must help coordinate services as part of a comprehensive solution.
“It definitely is a regional problem,” Swanson said, adding that the state and Pierce County are already exploring ways to improve services.
Challenger Robin Ordonez said there’s been too much talk and not enough action.
He said the city should be a focal point in coordinating social services. The city should have a staff position dedicated to facilitating services and directing people to appropriate resources in the community, he said.
Ordonez said he empathizes with both the homeless people who need help and the businesses and residents who deal with the perceived negative impacts, such as persistent loitering that makes some residents feel unsafe.
More broadly, he added that gaps in services at higher levels of government have increased Puyallup’s burden.
“The state and the county have basically shirked their responsibilities,” Ordonez said, adding that the city should facilitate larger conversations.
Dean Johnson: $7,425.
Steve Vermillion: $3,648.
District 1, Position 1
Robin Farris: $6,179.
Pat McGregor: $1,854.
District 2, Position 1
John Palmer: Candidate opted for mini-reporting, meaning he plans to limit the amount raised and spent to no more than $5,000 and isn’t required to report his contributions.
Keith Sherrill: $1,619.
District 3, Position 1
Robin Ordonez: $14,758.
Tom Swanson: $13,975.
Source: Washington state Public Disclosure Commission
MORE ABOUT CANDIDATES
Visit The News Tribune’s online voter guide at bit.ly/1ZiVxHl for more information on Puyallup City Council candidates as well as candidates for other local government seats.