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Puyallup Sued Over 'Sweeps' of Homeless Encampments

"RR Crossing - Rainer2" by Robin is licensed under CC by 2.0

Six people are suing the City of Puyallup seeking to end the police department's practice of clearing away homeless encampments, arguing the so-called "sweeps" are unconstitutional and have resulted in the loss of family photos, medications, and other belongings.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma by attorneys from the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie LLP, asks a judge to order a stop the sweeps. It also names Pierce County as a defendant, saying sheriff's deputies have aided police in the clean-ups. 

"In Puyallup and eastern Pierce County, there are no year-round shelters, forcing many people to sleep and live outside," the lawsuit states. "Rather than assist this vulnerable population, [the city and county]  instead often victimize them." 

The six people suing are homeless and say they have lost tents, clothes, shoes, cell phones, identifying documents, birth certificates, medical records, and other items in sweeps since February 2016. 

Puyallup's leaders defended the practice in a statement Friday, saying encampments often cause "large amounts of trash, waste and debris to accumulate," such as needles, human waste, spoiled food, and rusting metal.

"The City of Puyallup prioritizes health and safety for all citizens in our community," the statement said.

"When it is necessary to conduct a homeless encampment clean-up due to the clear presence of dangerous and unhealthy conditions, all affected persons are given ample notice and sufficient time to collect and remove their belongings," the statement continued. "They are also referred to resources and services which can assist them if they choose to accept such services."

A Piece County spokeswoman said: "While we can’t comment on the specifics of this lawsuit, we take the needs and concerns of those experiencing homelessness with seriousness and respect. As a policy, we provide 30 days’ notice of an encampment removal, and place flyers and postcards at each known site."

The lawsuit comes as the Puyallup City Council moves closer to passing a law that would restrict where a homeless shelter could operate to just 18 parcels. The city's leaders have said the law is designed to reduce conflicts with residents and businesses like those that arose around Puyallup's only drop-in center providing services for the homeless after it opened in 2014. 

Puyallup has no emergency shelters, though one nonprofit places homeless families in houses for up to a month. Another program staffed by volunteers converts churches into shelters on winter nights.

"Puyallup, in particular, has done a poor job of providing needed services to its vulnerable unhoused population," the lawsuit states.

In its statement, the city said it gives funds to organizations that help homeless people and contracts with a nonprofit that provides two social workers who do outreach work with the homeless population.  
As homelessness has grown more visible in Puyallup, a vocal group of residents organizing under the name Clean Up Puyallup has emerged as a powerful lobby and played a role in defeating incumbent City Council members last year.

Clean Up Puyallup's members have expressed the view that increasing homelessness has made the city less safe and have demanded city leaders take a harder line on enforcement. 

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.