Homeless campers are suing Puyallup, Pierce County after sweeps

Sep 25, 2018, 9:53 AM | Updated: 10:24 am
Pierce County homeless camp, homefree...
A pile of trash at a former homeless encampment in Pierce County, provided by the sheriff's office in May 2018. (Pierce County Sheriff's Office)
(Pierce County Sheriff's Office)

Residents of homeless camps in Puyallup and Pierce County are suing for damages and lost property following years of encampment sweeps.

The Tacoma News Tribune reports that the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty filed the lawsuit on behalf of campers on Sept. 14. The lawsuit alleges that the cleanups happen without adequate notice, the ability to challenge the sweeps, or a plan to save personal property. Plaintiffs say the sweeps are unconstitutional seizures.

RELATED: Pierce County deputies clean 30 tons of waste from camp, residents refused offer of job

Six individual are part of the lawsuit, which cites three specific sweeps.

“Homelessness is a crisis across the country, but simply removing people from public view is not the solution,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in a statement. “Puyallup’s approach is not only cruel, it is shortsighted, counterproductive and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The law center argues that there are no year-round emergency shelters for people to go to, while campers cannot afford permanent housing. They say that the city has made it difficult for churches to help the homeless population and it has restricted the ability of private organizations to offer services.

The City of Puyallup points out that the lawsuit came from a “large Seattle-based law firm” and that “the complaint contains false characterizations and numerous egregious misstatements of fact. The city looks forward to correcting the record in this regard.” It argues that the cleanups are for camps that pose significant health risks to the public from amassing waste, including used syringes, human waste, and rotting materials. Puyallup funds rapid rehousing and other homeless services. It refers campers to these services while providing “ample notice and sufficient time to collect and remove their belongings.”

“We let them know we will be back in 72 hours, and to please take your belongings with you,” said Puyallup Police Chief Scott Engle. “Anything that is left behind we will assume you do not want.”

Pierce County told KIRO 7 that it generally offers a 30-day notice to campers before officials clear an encampment. Services and assistance are offered to people before the cleanup, including for those with housing challenges and behavioral health issues.

Pierce County homeless residents

But residents of the unsanctioned camps argue that notices have not been enough. For example, the Tribune spoke with Nancy Boyle and Glenn Humphreys. Both are in their 50s and have lived in Puyallup most of their lives. Humphreys is an Air Force veteran. Boyle has health problems. They say that they left their camp near the Foothills Trail in Puyallup in 2016 and went to stay at a cold weather shelter for a few days. They returned to find a notice at their camp. The next day, officials came and told them they had to go within 15 minutes, and were threatened with arrest.

While Humphreys and Boyle were scrambling to collect their belongings, officials were also throwing things away. Humphreys lost tools he uses for work as a roofer. They also lost birth certificates, Social Security information, and documents used to get veteran’s services.

Nicki Wedgeworth, also in her 50s, says police threw away her medications when she was camped near the Puyallup Riverwalk in 2017. She has lived in the area most of her life, too. Police also swept the next spot she camped at a few months later. She alleges it was swept before the deadline.

RELATED: Homeless student population hits all-time high in Washington

At the last count, Pierce County has 1,628 homeless individuals. As of July, there were about 1,652 people on the county’s homeless housing wait list.

Pierce County Detective Ed Troyer told KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don Show in June that deputies generally have a three-step approach to the encampments: they offer jobs; they offer services; if those two options are not embraced, they will offer handcuffs.

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Homeless campers are suing Puyallup, Pierce County after sweeps