Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Asking a city council why it's a crime to be poor

A homeless coalition for a small city of Washington state filled a City Council meeting. The Puyallup Homeless Coalition wanted to talk to the council about the "crime" of being poor.

Homeless people have complained of police smashing their tents and telling them to leave city parks, and are increasingly running out of places to stay. A church allowed homeless people to park their cars in their driveway overnight, but that was even stopped due to complaints of neighbors.

From Puyallup's The Herald, writer Neil Pierson attended the meeting.

Scott was just one of numerous homeless persons who filled the Puyallup City Council chambers on Sept. 1. For more than an hour, the group besieged officials to help them find solutions. Many said they simply needed a roof over their heads while they tackled other problems but are finding that task impossible because police officers have been destroying their tents and evicting them from public property.

Ted Brackman, co-founder of the Puyallup Homeless Coalition, said bringing the homeless to a council meeting was a necessary step in helping officials understand the problem’s scope. The coalition was formed nine years and has since grown to include Open Hearth Ministries and the Freezing Nights program, which offers temporary housing during cold weather.

“There’s little change in terms of the official policy in Puyallup towards homeless people,” Brackman said. “So we’re at a crossroads and we wanted the city council to face that.”

Puyallup doesn’t have a dedicated shelter for homeless residents, relying instead on a network of churches and non-profit groups to temporarily provide relief. The homeless say there’s a perpetual cycle: They can’t get a job without an address or phone number and they can’t get those things because they have no money.

Bev Cascio, volunteer coordinator for Open Hearth Ministries, said problems in East Pierce County are growing. Her organization provides temporary relief for the homeless at motels, but there simply aren’t any vacancies these days. The issue affects all age groups: At the end of the last school year, Cascio said, 318 children attending Puyallup schools were considered homeless.

“We are facing a crisis here in Puyallup and we know that as leaders of our community you want to know what’s happening,” Cascio told the council. “Many of the families I’ve been meeting with in recent weeks have hit a wall. They don’t want to be homeless. They are vulnerable and at risk. They are pregnant women and small children and very young parents. They are grandmothers with children.”

Peter Andrews, coordinator of the Puyallup Homeless Coalition, said the city had been donating $5,000 per year to Open Hearth Ministries. This year, in a national recession, the amount dropped to $2,500. Meanwhile, a recent report showed the city spent $860,000 in the past five years to maintain Woodbine Cemetery. Andrews wondered why volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts couldn’t take up such a cause.

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