Things quickly turned confrontational Monday afternoon at the large homeless camp along the Chehalis River in Aberdeen when members of Revival of Grays Harbor — a support group for the homeless — encountered a group of people who want the camp cleared out.
About 17 people came to speak with inhabitants on the river as part of a new group led by Ocean Shores resident Sam Hutchinson, who has received permission from the riverside property owner Mike Lang to help clear out the campers.
“This is the end of tent city, the end of the excuses,” he posted on Facebook. “Slowly but surely we will be removing every vehicle, every structure and move to cleaning up this property and giving it back to the man who owns it.”
Hutchinson says his group wants to help the homeless by finding them better housing and resources.
Lang has been trying to regain control of his property for several years, but even when he has been successful, with the help of the city, homeless campers quickly return. Lang has said he would like to sell the property but the conditions on it, including a major problem with garbage, make that difficult.
The new group had let it be known that they would be coming to the camp Monday, and members of Revival of Grays Harbor were waiting there. Some heated arguments broke out and Aberdeen and Hoquiam police were called to ease the tensions.
So far, the new group has only taken a few minor actions, such as towing a van filled with one riverfront camper’s belongings to the edge of the property last Friday. People living along the river later pushed the van back. Members of Hutchinson’s group said they intend to spend this Friday moving all the RVs and vehicles out of the area with a tow truck.
But Hutchinson and the rest of the group’s members say they don’t simply want to move people out, they want to find them better housing.
“By no means do we want to just displace these people and bulldoze it down,” he said. Hutchinson said he has people lined up willing to offer housing for the approximately 75 to 80 who live along the river.
On Monday afternoon, their goal was to survey how many structures and people were on the riverfront area and also inquire about helping get every person who doesn’t already have one an ID card, which Hutchinson believes they need to get a job and find other opportunities.
Upon driving into the camps, they were met by about eight members from Revival of Grays Harbor, a nonprofit homeless assistance group that was formed two years ago and offers free services and goods from its downtown store that supports the homeless community.
The Revival members, as well as several from Catholic Community Services, then conversed and argued with the members of Hutchinson’s group. Emily Reed, the president of Revival, said she wished they would work with already-established groups to assist the homeless community on the river.
“If you have a place for them to go, come to our office, sit down with them and sign the paper to get them into housing,” she said.
After the parties argued for a while, police showed up and explained that Lang requested Revival members to leave so Hutchinson’s group could do its work speaking with tent residents.
Axel Colts, who works with Hutchinson, said he thinks a separate meeting with Revival could have been helpful to avoid the debating.
“It’s a little unproductive, I think it probably needs to be a separate meeting, set aside, and rethink what we’re doing, instead of coming down here guns blazing,” he said.
The members of the new group and Catholic Community Services then went through the camps asking whether they would like new IDs, and handed out business cards directing them to services. There were mixed responses. Some said they would appreciate an ID card and gave names, while others were resistant or said they already had them.
Shirley Owens, who has lived on the river off-and-on for several years, said she thinks it makes more sense for Hutchinson’s group to work with established homeless assistance programs.
“He comes back with a politer attitude, but he’s still giving us an ultimatum, and says he has the authority. But what authority?” said Owens. “We haven’t seen any paperwork or anything like that. He’s posting all over Facebook, and it seems like a publicity stunt. If he wanted to work with us, he would collaborate with the organizations that already exist and know us better.”
Hutchinson said he would be going back down to the camps on Friday to remove vehicles. A month or so ago, the city notified RV owners that they had to move the vehicles. A few did, but most didn’t. He also is working to get donated trash cans from LeMay Grays Harbor to offer a free trash service for those living along the river.
At the request of Hutchinson, Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson sent a letter to LeMay Grays Harbor “indicating that the City of Aberdeen did not object to them providing gratis dumpster service to the property on the river.”
Larson said the city will remain neutral on this issue, and that he “views this to be a private matter and feels it would be inappropriate to engage in ‘taking a side’ at this time.”