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Puyallup, A City With No Homeless Shelters, Seeks To Make It Harder To Open One

Courtesy of the City of Puyallup
A map showing, in red, parcels where a homeless shelter or drop-in center may operate under one version of a proposed Puyallup law

The Puyallup City Council is moving closer to passing a law that would make it more difficult to open a shelter or daytime drop-in center serving people who are homeless.

The proposal follows four years of conflict surrounding the city's only drop-in center, which some residents and business owners have blamed for making homelessness and drug use more visible in the city's downtown. 

Puyallup's proposal is based on a law that passed in Bellevue last month. It would require anyone who wants to open a new shelter or drop-in center to get special permission from the City Council or the city's hearing examiner and go through a lengthier review process. 

Another component of the law may require any new shelter or drop-in center be as far as 1,000 feet from a residential area, school, park, library, or senior housing facility. 

That would essentially restrict any new sites serving homeless people to a "handful of parcels up in the far northwest corner of the city," Tom Utterback, Puyallup's planning director, said at an Aug. 21 City Council meeting. 

Ric Rose, an attorney who sits on the board of a Puyallup organization called Homeward Bound, said the law would create "a procedural gauntlet that will make it impracticable to locate another facility anywhere in the city." His organization seeks to raise awareness about homelessness.

"I understand this very well may be the intent of this regulatory scheme," Rose said at the meeting. He pointed out Bellevue's law includes a statement that the city is committed to supporting homeless people, while Puyallup's does not. 

Other residents argued the proposal isn't restrictive enough.

Patty Gratz, a local real estate agent, said at the meeting that sites serving homeless people should also be barred from areas surrounding the city's trail system "so the community can enjoy it without the presence of the homeless camps, the drug using and harassment and fear." 

Puyallup currently has no homeless shelters within the city's borders. A City Council-imposed moratorium has been in place for more than two years preventing any from opening in Puyallup. Council members hope to pass the law before the moratorium expires on Oct. 8.

The Puget Sound region's smaller cities have struggled to manage a widespread homelessness crisis, and the reactions have varied widely.

In Olympia, a city only slightly larger than Puyallup, officials plan to open a "tiny house" community and expand the capacity of three nonprofit-run shelters. In Lakewood, officials put up signs this year advising residents to "keep the change" and not give handouts to people asking for money. 

Puyallup's leaders have bristled at criticism they are seeking to keep homelessness out of sight while ignoring its root causes.

"Where do we draw the line and say we're doing our fair share for a regional problem rather than try to bear the burden of something that is a regional issue?" Council Member Dean Johnson said at the meeting.

Johnson pointed to the existence of a Puyallup organization called Helping Hand House. However, it is headquartered just outside the city's borders, only serves families with children, and does not run a centralized shelter. Instead, it operates eight houses where families may stay for up to a month while case managers seek to place them in permanent homes.

Another program, Freezing Nights, houses people in one of 10 Puyallup area churches during the winter. The program's website cites "the reality that there is no emergency shelter in the City of Puyallup." 

Puyallup's leaders have been under pressure to manage the impacts of homelessness since the New Hope Resource Center, the city's only drop-in center serving homeless people, opened downtown in 2014.

The center, funded by church donations, is a place where homeless people can get a meal, use a restroom, charge their phones, or pick up donated clothes. Conflicts soon arose with neighbors, who complained the center's clients made the area unsafe.

The U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into the city in 2016 as council members considered imposing new regulations on the drop-in center, including a requirement that it hire a security guard.

The Justice Department said that action may constitute religious discrimination, because the New Hope Resource Center is run by a Christian group. The department continues to monitor the city, Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto said in an interview.

Yamamoto said the goal of the council's proposed regulations are to reduce conflicts like those that arose around the drop-in center.

One component of the law would require anyone proposing to open a new shelter or drop-in center to meet with neighbors and negotiate a "good neighbor agreement." 

“When you’re in proximity of each other, your activities can cause friction," Yamamoto said. "And so that’s what these regulations attempt to do is minimize that. Clean up your messes, watch out for noise. A big one is always, you know, maintain security.”

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.