By Hailey Palmer, Puyallup Tribal News
The Puyallup Tribe teamed up with the City of Tacoma on Tuesday, Jan. 30, to clean up homeless encampments located on Tribal land underneath the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge.
Tacoma Police Department, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the Port of Tacoma also assisted in clearing the sites, and the City of Tacoma provided trucks to haul away garbage throughout the day.
The Tribe gave encampment residents a week to make arrangements and relocate, following protocols similar to the city’s. Those residents were offered resources for finding temporary housing and local shelters. Leading the cleanup for the Tribe was Emergency Housing Repair Director Don Coats, who said it was especially important to clear the land because of its proximity to the Puyallup River.
“We’re here where the fishermen come and camp during fishing season, and we’ve got to keep this area clean for them,” Coats said. “We’ve got to keep them safe and keep our land safe.”
Puyallup Tribal Fisheries Assistant Director Char Naylor emphasized the risks encampments pose to surrounding habitats and water quality, especially when they are close to the river’s edge.
“People set up tents … in the riparian zone next to the river and trample plants we need for shade, and disturb this zone, which is also an important source of food for foraging fish,” Naylor said. “People defecate and urinate in the river, or worse, leave used needles or other chemicals around that can get washed into the river.”
The City of Tacoma declared homelessness a public health emergency in 2017. Homelessness in Pierce County rose 40 percent from 2017 to 2022, from 1,321 individuals to 1,851, according to the City of Tacoma.
Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud emphasized the balance of assisting the homeless, but also protecting Puyallup Tribal land.
“It’s important this community comes together and helps homeless people in any way we can,” Chairman Sterud said. “It’s also our responsibility to care for these lands and waters and air of the Puyallup Reservation and surrounding area.” Emergency Housing Repair Program Coordinator Kelly Sasticum emphasized that department employees do their best to find temporary shelter for any camp residents that may be displaced.
“We want to make sure the Tribe’s interests are taken care of – the fishermen as well,” Sasticum said. “It’s a growing epidemic that we have to keep on top of. We do our best to do outreach.”
The cleanup marked the third time the Tribe has cleared out camps in the same area over the last couple of years.
“It’s important to keep our properties clean and safe,” Sasticum said.
The cleanup effort continued for three days during which 30 loads of trash and solid waste were removed, totaling 133,100 pounds or 66.55 tons, and $11,476.25 in dump fees.
Coats was thankful for all who had a hand in assisting the Tribe with clearing out the encampments.
“I (would) really like to thank my staff, as well as the cemetery crew, maintenance department and Tribal Police, for their work and time to assist with the cleaning,” Coats said. “The City of Tacoma, Port of Tacoma and the railroad company – their effort here to help us is phenomenal and we’re grateful to have them here to help us.”
Coats and his crew hope to have the encampments completely cleared out by early February.