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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Puyallup spent $140,000 to divert calls about homelessness from police. Is it working?

UPDATED: Fri., April 26, 2019, 8:40 p.m.

By Allison Needles Puyallup Herald

A $140,000 program meant to divert calls about homeless people from police to social workers in Puyallup has not met expectations.

The city implemented the pilot program a year ago in response to frequent calls from downtown Puyallup businesses about homelessness.

The program, called Positive Interactions, was supposed to divert calls from police to social workers. It started in April 2018 with the help of behavioral health service provider Comprehensive Life Resources.

Positive Interactions dedicated a two-person team to serve Puyallup by working directly with local businesses, establishing a phone line for business owners to call and offering support and resources to those experiencing homelessness. The program was available to hundreds of businesses stretching south of the Puyallup River and north of 9th Avenue.

Most business owners still called police.

“As designed, (the program) didn’t fit Puyallup and the needs of our citizens and our businesses,” police Chief Scott Engle said in an interview with the Herald on Wednesday.

The program won’t go away completely, according to city officials. Instead, they’re working with CLR to try a different approach that would last through the next year. About $140,000 was set aside in the 2019 budget to pay for it.

“We did not find the business outreach to yield much from this year,” CLR wrote in a presentation to the city. “We do, however, hope that a small tweak in the model by allowing PPD to respond to the calls and then hand off to us, could be more beneficial.”

Instead of calling CLR directly, officers would direct nonemergency calls to CLR. That way, businesses can still call police, but CLR would respond. CLR suggests also allowing park and library staff to connect calls to them as well.

The successes

Engle pointed out there were some parts of Positive Interactions that worked well.

The program helped 20 people get into emergency or transitional housing.

“Those are 20 individuals that are no longer on the streets in Puyallup, and that’s a huge success,” Engle said.

The program connected 39 people to services, from medical treatment to enrollment in government benefits, according to a report sent to the Herald by James Pogue, director of homeless outreach for CLR.

Overall, Positive Interactions contacted 226 people. At the end of the year, 40 of those people were no longer homeless, the report said.

The struggles

There wasn’t a goal set, but CLR projected last year that it would connect with 350 people and respond to 150 business complaints.

At its core, the program was aimed to “let librarians be librarians and park employees be park employees and police officers be police officers,” Assistant City Manager Steve Kirkelie said.

“What we’ve found in Puyallup through this program is when business owners have issues with homeless persons, instead of calling social workers, they call the police,” Kirkelie said.

In many of those calls, there’s a perception a crime is being committed – even if that’s not the case, Engle said.

Only about 25 percent of the businesses contacted by the Positive Interactions used the team, according to CLR.

“Even with our team consistently checking in with the business, a majority of businesses stated that they still preferred to call the PD,” stated the CLR report.

Why? Some answers lie in surveys sent out by the city to more than 500 businesses.

Fifteen businesses responded to the latest survey, which was conducted in March. More than half of those said the Positive Interactions team never visited them.

“I have been in this office for 15 years. I’ve never heard of CLR prior to now,” wrote one business owner in the survey. “If I needed to I would call the police, but it isn’t a big problem.”

The vast majority of respondents said their businesses have experienced impacts from homeless people, from “defecation and litter in our parking lot” to “people sleeping on sidewalks,” but only three of those businesses ever contacted CLR.

The rest said they didn’t contact CLR because they weren’t experiencing impacts from homeless persons, or they called police instead. Some said they “provided assistance ourselves” or weren’t aware CLR existed, despite efforts by the agency and Puyallup police to get the word out.

“There was a considerable amount of outreach done by CLR,” said Engle, who also visited businesses to explain the program.

For those that did contact CLR – there were only six listed in the survey – four businesses said CLR did not meet their expectations.

“We stopped trying to call because we never get a response anyway,” wrote one business owner. “When we do, it takes a while so it is easier to deal with it ourselves or call the police.”

Some owners wrote in support of CLR.

Victoria Sells Antiques deals with the homeless problem every day, owner Sandy Hackbarth stated in a CLR presentation to the city.

“Calling the Puyallup Police to remove a stubborn homeless person does not seem the best use of our City resources,” Hackbarth said. “Calling Positive Interactions makes sense. They know many of the homeless in the area and have built a relationship with them.”

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