U.S. Justice Department Investigating Puyallup Over Proposed Rules Targeting Homeless Center

Dec 23, 2016

Puyallup officials say they're cooperating with an investigation into proposed city regulations targeting the city's only resource center for the homeless.

U.S. Justice Department officials informed Puyallup leaders of the investigation in a Dec. 6 letter. The Tacoma News-Tribune first reported the investigation Thursday.

"They have requested documents from the city and we intend to fully cooperate with the investigation," said Puyallup's assistant city manager, Steve Kirkelie. "We were obviously surprised by it." 

Federal officials are looking into whether city officials broke a law against religious discrimination when they proposed a set of security regulations targeting the New Hope Resource Center.

That's a Christian organization that connects homeless people to housing, work, and health programs. New Hope's leaders dispute claims by neighbors that center attracts crime to downtown Puyallup. 

In September, city officials drafted requirements they may impose as conditions of the center's 2017 license. It included a mandate that the center hire a security guard to be on duty while the center is open, as well as at least one hour before and after.

Proposed conditions also include a fence around the center and a hotline residents can call to register complaints with the center's staff. City officials have not finalized the regulations. 

Leaders of the New Hope Resource Center say the added expense of hiring a security guard could force them to close.

"We're real appreciative of the Justice Department's interest and we're going to cooperate with their investigation," said Paula Anderson, executive director of the New Hope Resource Center. 

But, she added, the center's long-term goal is to work with city officials to establish an overnight shelter with daytime services in the Puyallup area. She said the center's leaders are open to changing locations.

The Justice Department letter says the investigation could result in a lawsuit against the city seeking to enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The law's intent is to protect religious institutions from discriminatory zoning laws.

Anderson said the New Hope Resource Center, which opened in 2014, is a "faith-based organization" but serves people regardless of their beliefs.

"We do this work, despite the backlash we have received over the course of the last two years, because of our faith," she said.

Puyallup, along with much of Western Washington, is grappling with rising rates of homelessness and opioid addiction. Anderson said the center's leaders are looking to partner with another organization to open the area's first overnight shelter that connects people to social services.

But two years of controversy have pushed the center to the financial brink, according to Anderson. Donors, she said, have been less willing to contribute money because they fear the center will close.

"We're kind of living month-to-month right now," she said. "Last year at this time we had about $27,000 in the bank. This year, we have about $6,000."