Puyallup is known for a lot of things: It’s home to the Washington State Fair, and it has an inviting downtown with a lovely park, interesting shops and restaurants, a thriving farmer’s market and library.
To many homeless people, it’s known as something else: a place where they can find shelter for the night during the coldest five months of the year, November through March.
Begun in 2004 by the Puyallup Homeless Coalition to address the fact that the city had no emergency shelter, the Freezing Nights program alternates between several churches in the city. Homeless adults seeking services are picked up at one of two locations and transported to that night’s host church. They get something to eat in the evening and are given breakfast before leaving the next morning.
In addition, meal sites in the city feed the homeless year-round, and two of the churches provide places to hang out during weekdays.
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There’s no denying the generosity of spirit showed by the churches and the volunteers; they fill an all-too-real gap in services the larger community provides. But there’s also no denying the concerns of many in Puyallup that the Freezing Nights program could be drawing homeless people to the city and that some of them are causing problems ranging from littering, public intoxication, public urination and defecation, to physical altercations and theft.
Many communities are challenged by how to balance the desire to help the homeless with the concerns of residents who feel they’re unfairly experiencing side effects of that charity. Puyallup, to its credit, is actively seeking solutions.
Earlier this year the city formed a task force to study the issue and make recommendations – which it recently provided to the City Council. One recommendation has already been adopted: a zero-tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use at shelter sites and for impairment upon entry. That would help prevent the program from being a magnet for adults rejected by shelters in nearby communities.
Other recommendations include developing a daytime drop-in center with services focusing on employment, education, and mental health and substance-abuse services; seeking more input from shelter neighbors; creating an alcohol impact area where cheap, high-octane booze could not be sold; and coordinating policies with surrounding jurisdictions so that no one community stands out as enabling disruptive behavior.
The task force’s work is a good start. Now it’s up to the stakeholders to work on implementing the low-hanging fruit and making progress on the tougher recommendations. Puyallup should be proud that its “problem” is having so many people trying to do something about homelessness.