Nancy Boyle and Glenn Humphreys spent a night in a homeless shelter to escape frigid overnight temperatures in February 2016 in Puyallup, Washington.
When the couple returned the next day to their makeshift outdoor refuge, located underneath a large tree off a bike trail, they found to find their tent slashed, according to court documents.
A day later,they discovered an eviction notice attached to a tree branchtelling them they had three days to vacate the premises, according to the court documents. Before they did, eight officers arrived, bulldozed their camp and disposed of their possessions. The destitute pair claim they lost bedding, clothing, electronics, family photos, legal paperwork and medications.
So, they sued the city and the county.
Boyle, 57, a former certified nurse assistant,and Humphreys, 54, an Air Force veteran, are two of sixhomeless people in Pierce County seeking damages for lost property following years of having their belongings swept up and tossed out by the local authorities.
“It took a lot of courage for peopleto stand up to the city and say, ‘No more,'” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.“They’re fighting to be able to meaningfully protect the property that they need for survival.”
A small town35 miles south of Seattle,Puyallup has a history of tearing down makeshift homes in “sweeps” – forcing people to vacate their outdoor residencies and summarily destroying whatever remains. In 2016, a large-scale unauthorized refuge along the town’s riverbank was broken up and removed.
In a statement, Puyallup officials said the city prioritizes the health and safety of all its citizens.
“When it is necessary to conduct a homeless encampment clean-up due to the clear presence of dangerous and unhealthy conditions, all affected persons are given ample notice and sufficient time to collect and remove their belongings,” the statement said.
The reality of homeless communities stretches far beyond Puyallup.
On a single night in 2017, roughly 554,000 people across the United States were experiencing homelessness, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) annual report. Of that total, 193,000 people had no access to nightly shelters– up 9 percent from the previous year.
The Boyle v. Puyallup case is one of a series of lawsuits springing out of encampments in recent years.
In major urban areas, including Chicago and Los Angeles, where the cost of living continues to outpace wages, those experiencing homelessness are taking a stance to draw attention to the issues that drove them to encampments in the first place.
“Homelessness is a crisis across the country, but simply removing people from public view is not the solution,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Puyallup’s approach is not only cruel, it is shortsighted, counterproductive and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Such lawsuits reflect frustration with housing insecurity, rent burdenand lack of affordable housing options, said Elizabeth Bowen, assistant professorat the University at Buffalo School of Social Work
“There is a fundamental relationship between the lack of affordable housing and homelessness.” Bowen said. “Housing is becoming out of reach for more and more people. We can either make housing more affordable or help people increase their income. If we aren’t doing any of these things, we will continue to see people living in these situations.”
She added, “We may also start to see an increase in people who are constantly moving, people who get into a foreclosure situation. You may see families doubling up with two or more families sharing a home. And unfortunately, for some people it does lead you to sleep outdoors having run out of other options.”
Those in large cities tend to have a greater number of homelessness resources such as temporary shelters, yet there is no city in the U.S. with adequate year-round shelter capacity for its unhoused population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless,a national network of advocates and activists.
“There are hundreds of unhoused people in the Puyallup community, and the city offers no year-round emergency shelter,” said Bauman.“Our plaintiffs cannot afford to house and have no option but to live outside. Yet, the city repeatedly orders them to leave their tents or other outdoor homes without offering them a place to go or any way to secure their belongings, or simply bulldozes the property when the owners are not there.”
What’s the fix?
“Homelessness is a complex issue, but we need to correct the main cause:lack of affordable housing,” said Bowen. She said that the issue can be addressed at the federal level through long-term housing assistance.
Bowen said programs such as income-based housing, temporary housing andrent assistance could put a dent in the number of people who end up on the streetif they were properly funded.
“Across the board, all of these services are underfunded. We need a bigger federal commitment for people at risk of homelessness,” said Bowen.
Since reallocation of governmentfunding can involve a complex web of lengthy processes,Bowen suggestedlocal politicians focus on voluntary, choice-based solutions.
“One of the solutions involves giving people a sense of choice.” Bowen said. “A lot of homeless people have already experienced a lot of trauma, doing a sweepcould be retraumatizing. Create homeless outreach teams that build relationships with people who sleep outdoors. Allow the people who are homeless to set the terms of that relationship. Even when there’s help available, it canhard for them to trust strangers enough to go after those solutions.”
Also, Bowen said the public plays a role in addressing the homelessness crisis.
“The only thing sweeps fix is that people don’t have to see the visible signs of homelessness. It doesn’t change or fix anything, systemically,” Bowen said.
“We, as a society, should ask ourselves, ‘Do we really want to get to the root of the issue? Or do we just want to cover it up.'”