BONNEY LAKE, Wash. — A small traffic island between two gas stations in this East Pierce County suburb has been a flashpoint. To some, it’s where local homeless people panhandled harmlessly. To others, it is “tweaker island,” where handouts are said to enable addiction.
Twice, a local group has erected a metal sign there discouraging donations; twice it has been torn down.
By one count, homelessness in Bonney Lake and the neighboring communities of Buckley and Orting has nearly doubled in the last two years, to a likely undercounted total of 130 in July. The question of how to respond has split the community.
Amplifying the issue is the lack of homelessness services or public transportation, rapid growth that has in 20 years almost doubled the population to more than 20,000, and oft-cited fears of ending up like Seattle.
That tension was only heightened by a July confrontation between a man believed to be homeless and a group of teens that left one teen stabbed and both sides claiming self-defense.
As private citizens have stepped forward, two responses have emerged, both based around addressing addiction. A largely faith-driven contingent has pursued a strategy of building trust with the local homeless population and seeking to affirm their humanity.
The other — a Facebook-based group, Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs — takes a hard-line approach. They are one of many social-media-driven backlash groups that have sprung up around homelessness in Puget Sound cities.
The Bonney Lake group is an extreme example, seeking to expose local homeless people struggling with addiction and push them into treatment by eliminating other options, and has drawn accusations of harassment and vigilante behavior.
The group’s leader, Rhiannon Skog Geffre, defends their approach as necessary in the face of lack of action by authorities. And despite coverage of concerns about the group, they’ve seen groups in other communities, including Orting and Puyallup, connect with them. Their page has grown to over 900 members and rebranded more broadly as “East Pierce Watch.”
“It’s spreading,” she said.
Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs is a cross between a neighborhood watch, a homelessness outreach program and a political action group. Founded in October, many members are upset by drug activity they don’t think police are addressing.
Some activities have been innocuous, such as hosting trash and needle cleanups, and taking City Council members on a tour of a park where many homeless people camp. Other actions — posting names, photos and license plates of people they believe are dealing drugs, using drugs, panhandling or giving money to panhandlers — have drawn criticism.
In February, the Enumclaw-based Courier Herald reported a dozen people had contacted the newspaper in a week to report harassment involving the group. The (Tacoma) News Tribune has also reported on concerns about the group, but it has only tripled in size since.
Skog Geffres admits a few mistakes, but says group members confer among themselves before posting photos, and in a small community they know most of the local people struggling with addiction.
The goal, she said, is pushing people toward treatment; photos alert family members if their relatives are using drugs. Some of the people whose photos have been posted reached out to the group for help finding medical care or addiction treatment, Skog Geffres said.
“He knew we would post him, but he knew we would be there for him,” she said of one person.
Members of the group have clashed with critics. On a rainy Friday, Jason Cordova was holding a sign on the “tweaker island” median looking for side work after a stomach illness forced him to miss months of work. He also posted on Facebook that he was there.
Then, one of the group’s administrators, Billy McClanahan, showed up. He had seen the Facebook post, and in combination with an earlier post by Cordova, believed he was there to mock their protest later that day.
Accounts diverge. Cordova told police that McClanahan grabbed and crumpled his sign and knocked his phone to the ground. McClanahan said Cordova insulted and kicked a milk crate at him beforehand, but police noted that McClanahan was the primary aggressor and that the whole incident could have been avoided if he didn’t go out of his way.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, an agitated McClanahan admitted that it was wrong to confront Cordova and he wouldn’t do it again, before walking away and then coming back to say Cordova should have “gotten his ass kicked.”
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Both were charged in connection with the confrontation, McClanahan signed an agreement with the city of Bonney Lake promising to stay out of trouble and continue mental health treatment in exchange for eventual dismissal of his charges. Cordova was also charged with disorderly conduct; a trial is scheduled for October.
While critics have also lashed out at Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs, Pastor Jerry Roach said he’s never seen such an environment of aggression toward people experiencing homelessness in his roughly 40 years in Bonney Lake, and blames the group. In one incident, Skog Geffre called Roach’s wife a “b——” after she recorded her assailing a panhandler with a megaphone.
“Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs has fueled this fire and this hatred for homeless people,” he said.
Skog Geffre says she didn’t know who the Roaches were at the time and now they’re on better terms. The group’s moved away from anti-panhandling protests and using the megaphone because they see fewer people panhandling, in part due to pressuring the city to enforce an anti-aggressive-panhandling ordinance that had been sitting on the books, she said.
“It’s not the panhandling, it’s what they’re doing with the money” she said.
Growing up, Osseola Morgan wanted to be a social worker. In November, she got involved with Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs and started doing outreach for them. However, she started hearing concerns about the group from homeless people she was working with as well as the police chief, and eventually left.
As well as taking a more trust-based approach, Roach and Morgan fill Bonney Lake’s gap in services for homeless people. Sometimes police will call them to connect with people before a camp is cleared, and they work to find housing or treatment for people who want it, even driving them there at all hours.
However, Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs’ efforts have made it more difficult, Morgan says. Homeless people are upset and less trusting; they’re also less visible and harder to reach.
Morgan has also been targeted. Photos of her posted in the group claimed she was hindering efforts to reduce drug activity, and she and her husband received messages claiming she was having an affair.
In spite of all this, Morgan is undeterred. She’s driven by her faith and her belief in helping people who could have been her family members. Recently, she celebrated a sober anniversary with a mother she helped get in to rehab.
“My main thing is these guys out there don’t have anyone to stand up for them,” she said.
In May, a homeless man Morgan works with contacted her to meet urgently. Sitting in her car, he showed her an unregistered handgun and gave her his phone with messages he claimed showed it came from Skog Geffre.
The messages are inconclusive — while they show Skog Geffre leaving something in a mailbox in response to requests for a gun, she says she left the man a sandwich and Morgan said the man had negative experiences with the group before — and prosecutors declined to pursue any charges due to issues with the potential evidence.
But escalation on all sides is part of why Councilmember Tom Watson says he dissociated himself with the group.
“They were trying to be the enforcement, and that’s wrong,” he said. He sees the police as the correct venue to address issues without escalating them and to have a record of issues.
The city has made moves to address some of the group’s concerns — hiring a contractor to clear out underbrush in the city’s section and asking Weyerhaeuser to do the same, contracting with Enumclaw to guarantee jail spots — but is unclear how much has been driven by the group’s action.
Police Chief Bryan Jeter, who dealt with homelessness as Puyallup’s police chief, also has coordinated to bring outreach workers from Tacoma once a week.
For his part, Jeter says the department is caught in the middle trying to keep the peace. They’ve been criticized both for not cracking down on homelessness, an issue they don’t necessarily have the resources to address properly, and for not cracking down on Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs, whose First Amendment rights protect them, he said.
He’s seen Bonney Lake grow and understands the issues that come with it, but he’s struck by the tenor of the discourse he hears around the issue.
“We’ve become less respectful as a society,” he said.