The increase in the number of people living in camps is creating new tension points across Pierce County
The City of Puyallup is grappling with a growing homeless population. The increase in homelessness has caused tensions in the Pierce County community as area leaders struggle to find solutions and people struggle to find a place to go.
This past summer, Pierce County was forced to kick homeless people off of the Puyallup River, just off River Road in Puyallup. The county is tasked with maintaining the area along the river, and leaders say the growing homeless encampments were compromising that levy.
“We needed to clean up the river, and they needed to accept some help or find another place to go,” said Pierce County Councilwoman Joyce McDonald.
One person living along the river was Danielle Arnott. She has been homeless for more than five years but on that day she was forced to face the reality of her homelessness, and that she doesn’t know when it will end.
"I don't want to be like this,” Arnott said. “This is not okay for me. I mean, you’re supposed to like camping. This is not supposed to be a lifestyle.”
It’s been about three months since Arnott left the river, and she is still homeless in Puyallup.
“It’s very hard to move forward when everything you own you have to drag behind you,” she said.
Some of that baggage includes mental health issues. But there other demons she battles that she said she could’ve avoided.
“I use meth a little here and there,” Arnott said. “I could have done things a lot sooner to keep this at bay and I just chose to bury myself deeper in vodka, because I didn’t want face reality.”
Arnott spends her days finding a safe place to camp and in the evening visiting soup kitchens like the Armory in Puyallup. It’s there where volunteers say they know the battles some people are facing, and they find the grace to help.
“Unfortunately the need is great in our area, and we’re just really glad that we can do this mission and feed the people,” said Naomi Wells.
Other volunteers like Jessie Thompson say people in the community need to be more empathetic.
“If you have a home, maybe you don’t understand driving by a tent or a tarp that’s tied to a tree, but that’s a home.” Thompson said. “It’s not only a home for these people, but it’s a community.”
But there is concern that providing meals isn’t a solution to homelessness
“Right now we’re just moving them around, and personally for myself I’m glad I can be part of this to feed them, see that they get a good meal, and other than that I have no answer for them,” said Wells.
A few miles from Armory is the New Hope Resource Center in Puyallup, a day shelter that is still searching for answers to help homeless people. Paula Anderson, the center’s executive director said Puyallup was having growing pains about the issue.
“Puyallup in not immune to the social issues that are running rampant in our country,” Anderson said. “We’re just trying to find a way to deal with it before it gets way out of hand.”
The shelter is open a couple of days a week during the day. It’s a place where people can access services and get food. It’s also right next door to a salon where employees say they’ve experienced issues with the homeless population.
“That’s what I hear all the time, ‘Those people are harmless. You don’t have to worry,’ and I’m like, until they harm somebody. They’re on meth and heroin,” said Jenny Roberts, who works at the salon. “I’ve watched fights outside. I’ve watched a man try to hit somebody with a chain while another woman sicked their pit bull on them. I’ve watched domestic fights. I can’t even explain all of the things I’ve watched.”
Roberts and others, including Jim Kastama, have asked the City of Puyallup to try to regulate the New Hope Resources Center or move it.
“The human waste that you deal with, the trash, the threat of crime that you deal with, the intimidation – those are things that we have to deal with,” said Kastama.
Kastama says residents have paid a price for community altruism.
“Their cause is so great that it really doesn’t matter what the cost is for that and I admire that but the facts of the matter is when someone bears the cost of safety being able to bring their children out to the parks, that’s not fair.”
Anderson of the New Hope Resource Center has a response to that.
“There are some people who don’t belong in the public there are some people who are dangerous but not every homeless person is that person.”
Recently the City of Puyallup asked the New Hope Resource Center to provide additional security and make other changes. Anderson said these changes would force them to close their doors just before the winter season, because they wouldn’t have enough funding in their budget.
With a lack of affordable housing and shelters, many want to know, what happens next?
“Those people are still here. Just because those camps are gone, where did the people go? They’re still here,” said Arnott, the woman struggling with homelessness.
While a community battles to break the cycle of homelessness, life for many in limbo may get too heavy to carry.
“If I’m still in this situation in five years you’ll be looking at a coffin, because there’s no way,” Arnott said. “I can’t do it.”