South Sound News

Homeless backlash dividing Bonney Lake

BONNEY LAKE, Wash. — South Sound residents are taking to the streets to combat what they see as an epidemic of addiction and homelessness. But they are alienating neighbors and singling out those who are living on the streets, dividing a city.

Bonney Lake's population has doubled since the start of this century. With that growth have come big city problems. And those growing pains are pitting neighbor against neighbor in the struggle to combat homelessness.

A welcome sign beckons as you enter picturesque Bonney Lake. But just off Highway 410 in the woods behind the city's burgeoning business district, locals say you will see a seedier side. 
"I know what the rumor is about Bonney Lake," said Rhiannon Skog-Geffre. " 'Bonney Lake is the easy place to come and live in the woods. It's the easy place to come and steal. It's the easy place to panhandle because there is rich people everywhere.'  And I'm not even joking."

Rhiannon sat in the living room of her friend, Kristina Donaldson. She moved to this city a couple of years ago. She contends they see suspects arrested, then quickly released.

“And I've been there, too, where someone has come out 10 minutes later to steal again," she says. "And that's where citizens stop them."

There is no evidence that all of them are homeless or addicts. Still she feels frustrated.

“I do," she said.

So she created the Bonney Lake Buckley Against Drugs Facebook page. Then she took to the streets, recording videos of herself yelling at one panhandler, telling him to "go back to Carbonato."

And she posted the videos on Facebook. Then came the backlash.

"It's a group of pretty much vigilantes," said Jacob Kerth.  Like many who feel targeted, he is homeless.  But he is from Bonney Lake.

"I feel like I'm probably threatened more than two or three times a week by some of the younger kids, that are kids of the group," he said.

Kerth first spoke to KIRO 7 last July. Eighteen-year-old Tyson Lawes, a former standout athlete at Bonney Lake High School, said he was stabbed in these woods by Kerth's friend who is homeless, too.

In court documents, Thomas Wayne Morris insisted Lawes and several other teens threatened him with "You're going to die tonight."  Morris says they assaulted his girlfriend then came after him. That, he says, is when he pulled out his knife and attacked.

Nevertheless, Morris was charged with a felony.

All of it is troubling to the police officers sworn to serve and protect everyone in this community.

"It is not comfortable for anybody to see somebody who is afflicted either with mental health issues or addiction issues and they're under the influence," said Bonney Lake Police Chief Bryan Jeter. "Their behavior can be unpredictable. So I know that's quite unsettling. And we're not used to that out here in eastern Pierce County.”

Chief Jeter said he did not want to talk about the citizen group. But he says they are working to solve the issues with homelessness.

"We are trying for sure," he said.

The city is trying various ways to try to solve this difficult problem. One way has been to clear the underbrush throughout this park to make it difficult for people to hide during the day and even at night.

But that work stops at the Midtown Park's land. The adjoining 100 acres are managed by Washington State University. The city hasn't been able to reach an agreement to thin these woods, too.

Still Andy Florek walks his dog, Charlie, here nearly every day.

"A few years ago, there was big homeless camps," Florek said. "The police department cleared them all out. And they really haven't been back."

He feels the police are doing their job? "I do. Yes."

While a KIRO 7 camera was there, an officer was making rounds looking, he said, for used drug paraphernalia.

Still Rhiannon's in-your-face tactics drove many of her early supporters away.

“There was a fight or something and I left the group,"  said Kristina. "I didn't want to be tied to it."

But she says then she saw Rhiannon helping addicts she once targeted.

"People say she's hateful and a lot of bad stuff about her," she said. "But if she's hateful why is she trying to get drug addicts into rehab?"

"I majored in social services and minored in psychology," said Rhiannon. "I know both sides to it. And it's not a popularity contest for me. If it was, I would be crying every day because of what people say. My mission is to bring the community together and mend it because it's very much broken."

She says she has changed. But the bridges she has burned may not be so easily repaired.

Chief Jeter was asked if he can work with her now.  "We prefer to work with established entities," he said. "I think you know by now there is no silver bullet."

But it will likely take every person who lives here to solve a problem that is vexing communities from one end of the Puget Sound to another.

On Friday, a community meeting is being held in Bonney Lake with Battleground Addiction. See additional details about the meeting here. 

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