Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Homelessness Is A Defining Election Issue In Puyallup

Courtesy of the New Hope Resource Center
The New Hope Resource Center in Puyallup

Homelessness is one of the thorniest local election issues in Western Washington this year, even -- or especially -- in the small Pierce County city of Puyallup. 

At the heart of Puyallup's 1st City Council District sits the New Hope Resource Center. It's a place where homeless people can drop in during the day to charge their phones, use a restroom, or pick up some donated clothes. 

It's also the epicenter of the most divisive debate in Puyallup. 

Neighbors say the center brings crime, drug use, and litter to a section of downtown Puyallup populated by schools, homes, and businesses.

Leaders of the center -- the only one of its kind in the city -- say those claims are overblown. People who rely on it say it's a lifeline to basic comforts and social services.

The debate is a microcosm of a regional divide about how leaders should manage rising homelessness in Western Washington -- a split between voters motivated by compassion for the homeless and voters more concerned about the impacts of homelessness on their neighborhoods. 

Candidates in Puyallup, and in local elections throughout the state, are navigating strong opinions on both sides.

John Hopkins is running for a third term representing Puyallup's 1st District on the City Council. He's also the city's mayor, a largely ceremonial title that rotates among council members. 

Hopkins owns buildings downtown and says the center's impacts on neighbors are real. But he's grown to support the center's work, and hopes to reach a compromise. 

"We're fighting this thing instead of working together," he said.

Hopkins supports a plan to help the New Hope Resource Center relocate to a new site across the Puyallup River, and away from the city's downtown. The plan includes opening eastern Pierce County's first homeless shelter on the same site. 

Buying property for the resource center and shelter could cost the city $1 million, he said.

But, he added, while many voters have grown more understanding and knowledgeable about homelessness since the center opened, the plan puts him at odds with more hard-line constituents in his district.

"Some people's attitude is extremely harsh: 'Put them in a gunny sack and take them to the river,'" he said. "No, that's not the right approach. We need to be balanced." 

His opponent in the race, Jim Kastama, took issue with that characterization. He said the district's residents are compassionate, but frustrated with feeling unsafe. 

Kastama, a former Washington State senator, helped start a group called Clean Up Puyallup, which has been harshly critical of the New Hope Resource Center. He lives about a half-mile away.

"The fundamental rule is 'Do no harm,'" Kastama said. "And we have allowed homeless programs to actually go into vulnerable areas, vulnerable neighborhoods, to the point of almost destroying those communities." 

He said moving the center across the river wouldn't put it far enough away from schools, and similar conflicts would arise at a new location. 

He wondered if Puyallup, a city of 37,000 people, even has a suitably remote site for an operation like the New Hope Resource Center. He said the best option may be for the center to close. 

Puyallup came under a U.S. Justice Department investigation last year, after City Council members proposed expensive security regulations for the center, including a requirement that it hire a security guard.

The Justice Department said that action may constitute religious discrimination, because the center is run by a Christian group. 

Hopkins, who supported the security requirements, said the city has spent about $100,000 on lawyers in the case.

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.