Pierce County Council talks homeless encampments

The challenge of dealing with chronic public nuisances cut across most of the community engagement presentations at the Oct. 1 in-district meeting of the Pierce County Council at the Mid-County Community Center in Tacoma.

As required by the county charter, the council holds at least one in-district meeting each year to be chaired by the council member representing that district – in this case, Marty Campbell of District 5, encompassing the dense core of Tacoma’s Eastside, South End and unincorporated neighborhoods running to Parkland, Spanaway, Midland and Summit.

“It goes back to making yourself accessible, hearing what people are thinking, getting their perspective, and then seeing what we can do as a sheriff’s department that aligns with our core mission and values,” Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Papen told the council during a presentation updating the department’s Community Liaison Deputy Program. “At the foundation of all we do is community engagement.”

Started in January 2018, the Community Deputy Liaison Deputy Program consists of five deputies, one sergeant and one program coordinator, with each one of the five deputies assigned to different patrol areas: Peninsula/Gig Harbor, Parkland/Spanaway, South Hill/Puyallup, Mountain/Eatonville and Foothills/Bonney Lake. The goal of the program is to build community partnerships and address neighborhood crime issues.

One of the most pressing issues: homeless encampments and overall nuisance properties.

“It has really been affecting the community,” Papen said.

He highlighted the program working with property owners, code enforcement officials, business owners and law enforcement in dealing with a 15-acre transient camp located in the southwest corner of private property along the State Route 512/Canyon Road East corridor. The week-long cleanup, which cost $40,000 and 300 man hours, succeeded in removing 30 tons of waste and eight gallons of used hypodermic needles.

The results have been dramatic, according to statistics presented by Papen. Comparing Dec. 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018, to Dec. 1, 2018, through March 31, 2019, has seen calls for service decrease by more than 25 percent, total reports written decline by nearly 30 percent, property crime down by nearly 48 percent and violent crime down by 69 percent.

“I’m happy to tell you that, as we stand here today, there are no large-size encampments in unincorporated Pierce County,” Papen said.

He did note the ongoing nature of the problem.

“We take these seriously,” Papen said. “We take the idea of protecting people’s property seriously.”

Dennis Hanberg, director of Planning and Public Works, echoed Papen’s comments regarding the public nuisance problem.

From 2018 through the second quarter of 2019, there have been 1,521 violations in terms of solid waste, derelict structures and junk vehicles, Hanberg said, with a goal of resolving these issues within 90 days.

That goal is not being met at the present, Hanberg admitted, but is trending in the right direction.

“I think our average right now is 179 days,” he said, noting more than half of all cases are now being resolved within 90 to 110 days.

Hanberg predicted the county would board up more than 50 homes this year, up from a total of 17 last year.

Currently the county has 30 homeless camps on public property and 14 homeless camps on private property, he reported.

The size of these encampments is shrinking, Hanberg said, as his office becomes more proactive in dealing with the issue.

The average cost for boarding up a home, cleanup and demolition is $2,000, $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

Larry Volland, who helped found the Summit Waller Community Association in 1993 and serves as the organization’s president, noted the chronic nuisance properties problem during his update to the council, saying more patrols by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office has helped mitigate the problem.

“With community support, we keep going,” he said.

In other business, the council passed Proposal No. R2019-132, proclaiming October as “Disability Employment Awareness Month” in Pierce County.


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