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‘Either going to jail or leaving’: Pierce County takes tougher approach to unsanctioned encampments

SEATTLE -- Pierce County is taking a tough stance against some unsanctioned encampments, and the sheriff's department says it doesn't consider all those people in them as homeless in the traditional sense.

“We are not calling these groups homeless; it does a disservice to the people who are really homeless that need services, that don’t want to be homeless. A lot of people, we understand, have fallen on hard times-- we want to get those people services,” Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Ed Troyer said.

Troyer was talking about the 30 people who were living in tents and cars on wooded private property living along 112th Street. Deputies recently cleared them out.

“They were offered services. We even offered them jobs with labor people for a few months,” Troyer said.

He added that all their offers were rejected, including money to help clean up their own mess.

“Stolen bikes and toys and battery-powered cars (were left behind) -- and there is no children there. So it shows they were taking things not tied down in their neighborhood and stealing. We had one store that had 90 complaints in one month," Troyer said.

Complaints of theft and drug use were taken seriously enough that the campers were given an ultimatum.

“They pushed us to the point of, you are either going to jail or leaving,” Troyer said.

The campers didn’t tell deputies where they were headed next, but Troyer said wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in Seattle.

“With Seattle kind of sending out the invitation to come up there, I wouldn’t be surprised if they showed up there. But we are not sending them there,” Troyer said.

Troyer is talking Seattle city policies that make it easy for people to form encampments with little oversight.

“Everybody we contact, everybody we talked with, knows how much they can get up there for free,” Troyer said.

“I think Pierce County is spot on,” Seattle resident David Moody said.

Moody says it’s refreshing to hear law enforcement call out the encampment for what it was.

“They need to be held accountable,” Moody said.

Moody says that kind of accountability is not happening in Seattle because of city leaders. He says crime is going unchecked at many of the 400 unsanctioned encampments across Seattle.

“The City Council will tell you that they are not; we are hearing from officers on the streets to not to go after those situations,” Moody said.

In a previous interview, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’ Brien said the city can’t remove an encampment based on just the number of complaints.

“We don’t prioritize them on which neighborhoods have the loudest voices. We prioritize them (based) on actual facts on the ground, where the actual harm is being done,” O’Brien said.

Seattle Police have also told Q13 News in the past that they enforce the law no matter whether or not someone is homeless. But Moody says his Whittier Heights neighborhood feels otherwise.

“We are literally becoming a mecca for those that don’t want to conform, that don’t want to abide by laws, want to be active drug-using culture,” Moody said.

And now Pierce County is sending a strong message that it’s never welcome in its towns.

“It’s really hard to help people who don’t want to help themselves, especially given every opportunity,” Troyer said.

Troyer says it took 300 hours to clean up 30 tons of trash, human feces and drug paraphernalia left behind.

There were so many hypodermic needles that it took eight of the one-gallon containers to haul them away.