The city of Puyallup spent more on legal matters related to homelessness over the past five years than it did helping local nonprofits that serve homeless people, according to records obtained by The Puyallup Herald.

Since 2014, Puyallup has spent nearly $1.1 million on:

  • Attorney’s fees in two lawsuits involving homelessness;
  • Cash to settle a third suit brought by people who lost belongings during a raid on a homeless camp;
  • Legal expenses tied to a federal investigation into the city’s restrictions on Puyallup’s only shelter serving homeless people.

Over that same period, the city distributed almost $873,000 to agencies and organizations like The Puyallup Food Bank and Helping Hand House who serve people in need, including the homeless population.

Mayor John Palmer told The Puyallup Herald that the city’s actions related to homelessness that led to litigation were necessary to address a problem that had gotten “out of control.”

“It helped improve the city and achieved initial objectives, but as it’s unfolded — the litigation — we want to minimize that moving forward,” said Palmer, who is seeking re-election.

Lawsuits related to homelessness have become an issue on the campaign trail, some City Council candidates said.

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District 1 City Council member Robin Farris, her opponent Curtis Thiel, and Palmer’s District 2 challenger, Paul Herrera, said they hear time and time again that residents are concerned with how entangled the city has become in litigation related to homelessness.

Three lawsuits

The New Hope Resource Center was at the center of two of the lawsuits.

Open for limited hours during the day, the center offers meals and helps connect homeless people to employment, housing, clothing and mental-health and medical resources.

But neighbors have complained to the city about garbage, drug use and crime they contend is connected to New Hope.

Homeward Bound, the New Hope Resource Center’s parent nonprofit, has sued the city twice in recent years after city officials passed ordinances that directly affected New Hope’s operations.

The first challenged a 2016 ordinance that placed operating restrictions on properties labeled as “significant impact businesses.” The law required affected businesses to hire a security guard, enforce a code of conduct for patrons, build a fence, acquire outdoor lighting and set up garbage removal and a telephone line for community complaints.

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The New Hope Resource Center was the only location affected by the ordinance.

The city has since abolished the law.

Homeward Bound also sued the city after the City Council voted last year to restrict new providers serving homeless people to work in specified zones. The ordinance limited homeless shelters and drop-in centers to an area in the northwest corner of the city, where many of Puyallup’s manufacturing warehouses are located.

A state hearings board decreed this summer that the designated zones for homeless centers were not accessible enough to public transportation. The ruling also said the ordinance violated a city law that requires Puyallup to “promote a variety of housing for people with special needs, such as the elderly, disabled, homeless, and single householders.”

Puyallup is amending the law to meet the Growth Management Hearings Board’s recommendations. The City Council is expected to vote on changes this month.

In 2018, six people sued the city after a raid on their encampment cost them various items, including medical records and devices and other personal belongings. Puyallup settled with four of the plaintiffs for a total of $40,400 plus $100,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Outside counsel

Puyallup, like many cities, contracts out legal work on complex cases, including on land use or federal compliance issues, Mayor Palmer said.

Two Seattle-based firms, Calfo Eakes & Ostrovsky and Eglick & Whited, received more than $774,000 to work exclusively on New Hope-related cases, between January 2014 into July this year, according to records obtained by The Puyallup Herald through a public-records request.

Calfo Eakes & Ostrovsky was hired primarily to address the U.S. Department of Justice’s open investigation into the “significant business impact” law, Puyallup City Attorney Joe Beck said.

Calfo began working with the city when the Department of Justice opened the investigation in December 2016. Since then, the firm has charged the city an additional $185,000. Once the city repealed the ordinance last month, the federal agency dropped the investigation.

In total, the city has paid more than $959,000 for outside legal counsel defending laws surrounding homelessness.

Since 2014, neither Tacoma nor Lakewood has paid fees to outside attorneys for court cases connected to homelessness, officials with those cities told The Herald.

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Service grants

Since 2014, Puyallup has provided community grants to local nonprofits for a total of almost $873,000, according to records obtained by The News Tribune.

Any nonprofit can apply, but the City Council prioritizes those with programs that serve city residents, according to the grant application.

Serving the homeless population is not a stipulation of the grants. But many of the grantees have programs that help Puyallup residents avoid homelessness, feed those in need or shelter specific clients, like families experiencing homelessness or those experiencing domestic abuse. Recipients include All Saints Catholic Church, Helping Hand House, Homeward Bound, Puyallup Food Bank and the YMCA.

Helping Hand House’s CEO Kevin Bates said the $321,500 received in the past five years has been instrumental in allowing the nonprofit to help local families find permanent housing. About 85 families with ties to Puyallup were placed into homes last year, Bates said. Puyallup’s grant accounted for 15% of their budget in 2018.

“We’ve got people in our community (who) understand that they need to share the resources to help,” Bates said.

Sister Pat Michaleck with the St. Francis House said the $44,000 the organization received from the city over the past five years has helped with rent and utility assistance for residents on the brink of homelessness. For those struggling to pay a month’s utility bills or rent, the charity will step in.

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“It’s been a huge help,” Michaleck said. “We encourage clients to send a thank you note to the Puyallup City Council. It’s good for the families to know that the city is helping them, and most are very appreciative.”

Meanwhile, Tacoma has included more than $28 million in its budget since 2014 for homeless service providers.

Lakewood, a city three times the size of Puyallup, has granted $2 million to community providers since 2014, according to spokesperson Brynn Grimley.

In addition to grants to service providers, Puyallup has used other methods to address homelessness, including the creation of a hotline last year for business owners who wanted help connecting homeless people to social workers and resources.

Puyallup’s Police Department added a community resource officer in 2015 to enforce city laws and connect homeless residents with available resources. He has been paid more than $639,000 over the past five years.

A recent $65,000 contract with the Salvation Army provides Puyallup’s homeless access to shelter, resources and food. Puyallup police officers can ask people experiencing homelessness if they are interested in the program, and if so, the officers will drive them to Tacoma. The yearlong contract provides 14 beds.

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Council’s response

Puyallup Councilmember Farris, who represents District 1, where the New Hope Resource Center is located, said she hopes that the city decides to partner with homeless service providers rather than “legislate them into a corner.” Farris voted against last year’s designated zones for homeless service providers because she said she knew it would end in a lawsuit.

“What bothers me is that I think litigation should be the very last step,” Farris said. “Taking these cases to court is not a win-lose situation. We don’t win.”

Councilmember Jim Kastama, who also represents District 1, has not responded to requests for comment. The former state senator said at a recent City Council meeting that the money spent litigating the homeless-zones ordinance was worthwhile to protect children.

Council member At-Large Dean Johnson also declined to comment.

Mayor Palmer said he hopes the litigation chapter of Puyallup’s response to the homelessness crisis is over and council members can be more collaborative with New Hope.

“It’s helped, but it doesn’t mean we’ve gotten rid of those experiencing homelessness, and we need to keep going on that path,” he said. “It’s complicated. I don’t think anyone has a magic wand on this.”

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