The Aberdeen City Council unanimously approved a plan to create a temporary overnight shelter in the parking lot behind City Hall during a council meeting Wednesday night. The city intends for this site to provide a short-term home for people displaced after the city clears the longtime homeless encampment along the Chehalis River. The City Hall parking lot facility will cost $30,000 for one month of operation, with about half of that cost being for 24-hour security, Mayor Erik Larson said.
The morning after the meeting, the city issued 72-hour notices of needing to vacate to the riverfront inhabitants, which state that the city plans to begin clearing the “River City” homeless encampment Monday, July 15, at 8 a.m.
City officials said the move is a response to long-standing concerns about crime, safety and sanitation at the camp, but for Jackie Youngblood, 43, leaving was a frightening prospect.
Youngblood was sitting in her friend’s van drawing in a coloring book after police gave her the notice Thursday. She said coloring helps calm her down, and that she’s scared about having to leave the tarp-covered teepee she’s lived in for more than a year.
“I don’t understand what’s the difference between having us behind City Hall and here,” she said while crying. “I know I’m safe here, and that’s what’s scary, because this is where I go to be safe. It’ll be scary having to leave.”
If the parking lot site isn’t ready Monday, Youngblood said she’d probably sleep on the sidewalk somewhere in town.
For decades, homeless people have lived along the Chehalis River near downtown in shacks, tents and broken-down vehicles, but the city took the stance that it’s unsafe and unfit for people to stay. There had been as many as 108 people at the site, but it has reduced in size since the city bought it last year. Some homeless people say it still hovers around 100 people at any given time.
People at the riverfront had mixed reactions after police informed them Thursday morning about the plan to clear the site, and some were already packing up their things or had friends helping them move.
At Wednesday’s meeting, council members spoke mostly in favor of the plan to add 38 tents in a fenced facility behind city hall, and Council President Tawni Andrews said it’s not perfect but a step the city has to take.
“It’s not the ideal situation, but the city’s forced into this situation to undertake something we’ve never done before,” said Andrews. “I think it’s a good temporary location, and maybe we find a better permanent spot.”
Pete Schave, who’s running for mayor this year, was the only council member to speak against the plan to clear the riverfront. Schave didn’t vote against the parking lot facility, but he said before the meeting there were several private council sessions he pushed for the property to be improved by the city to address safety issues instead of building a new facility. He said it would’ve cost less than $30,000.
“I think for a lot less money, we could take on the unsafe conditions and make it usable, at least for a temporary time before we can find somewhere for them,” said Schave, who added the property could’ve been fenced to mitigate concerns of people crossing the train tracks. He said the council dismissed that idea in executive sessions because of the dangers of the site.
Around 10 people raised concerns over the city’s plan during the public-comment period Wednesday, with some commenting it’s not an improvement to move people from the riverfront to the facility downtown. Some were also concerned 38 tents wouldn’t be enough to hold everyone from the encampment.
“If we move 150 people to the parking lot behind here, I know if I’m homeless and into doing drugs and getting rowdy, I’m probably not going to stay across from the police department, I’m probably going to be across town,” said Cache McCallum. “The reasoning doesn’t make sense.”
There’s no other site the city has identified for people to move to if the city’s parking lot facility doesn’t hold everyone.
The city is purchasing tents, sleeping bags, fencing and other supplies for the facility, which has yet to have a certain opening date. The facility will have garbage containers, personal storage for those who stay there, portable toilets and a clean water source.
Following public comments, Larson said while there are some similarities of the two sites, the danger of the riverfront site and difficulty to address incidents there make maintaining and fixing it up not an option.
According to a copy of the vacate notice, people on the river have until 8 a.m. Monday to leave the property and take personal belongings. The city began installing raised wooden pallets in the City Hall parking lot Friday morning, and Larson said he hopes to have it ready soon. But it’s unclear if the city will have the facility ready before it begins clearing the existing homeless camp, or if it some will be forced to camp in public.
Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate said the site would likely be set up by Monday or Tuesday, and said his department’s goal is to help people transition from the existing site to the city’s parking lot facility if they have nowhere else to go.
“The bottom line is trying to do what we can to minimize the anxiety for the folks out there,” he said.
Shumate said the city would also assist moving personal belongings to the site, but he stopped short of saying police would wait until the site is setup before the city forces people to leave.
“Just like any civil action, it says I can’t do anything before 72 hours; it doesn’t mean I have to wait 90, 100, whatever,” said Shumate.
Around a dozen police officers went through the large encampment Thursday serving the 72-hour notices. The officers stopped at each location where someone was living and attached a card with a code number on the tent or shack before trying to talk to them, asking what their plan is and if they would use the city’s facility.
Officers contacted an estimated 50 residents from the 66 individual campsites they counted, according to a police press release, as well as seven to 10 people there to assist residents with moving property.
An info sheet about the site’s closure was also issued to the homeless residents. The vacate notice states that personal property will be collected during the cleanup Monday, which includes items such as wallets, purses, backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, glasses, weapons and more. It states those with questions should contact Aberdeen Public Works at 360-537-3224.
Some of the camp inhabitants said they had family to move in with elsewhere, while others said they aren’t sure where they’ll move to. Drew Carey, who lives at the riverfront in a shack, said he’d probably move and camp on the opposite side of the river. He guessed it’s likely encampments on the south side of the river will get larger and resemble the current encampment when people leave it.
“That’s exactly what will happen, I imagine,” said Carey. “There already are some living on that side of the river.”
His brother, Patrick, was waking up in his tent Thursday morning and said he’s not sure what he’ll do but that he’ll probably move to the city parking lot site for a short period while he figures things out.
Along with the temporary site behind City Hall, the council also unanimously approved a proposal for Larson to enter into negotiations to acquire a different site for homeless people to live that would be more permanent. The request estimates that the first year of operating a permanent homeless mitigation site would cost between $330,000 and $480,000, and that Larson would seek outside funding from state and counties agencies. He has a property in mind, but Larson has yet to disclose where it is.