The Aberdeen City Council has approved Mayor Erik Larson’s plan to acquire property for a long-term site where homeless people could camp, but there was some opposition.
The council voted 9-3 Wednesday night to use city funds for a long-term camping facility. Those who voted “no” were Pete Schave, John Maki and Council President Tawni Andrews. Those who voted “yes” were Tim Alstrom, Karen Rowe, Margo Shortt, Dee Anne Shaw, Frank Gordon, Jeff Cook, Jim Cook, Jerrick Rodgers and Kathi Prieto.
The council approved spending guidelines for a one year plan that includes $189,188 in one-time costs to establish the facility and $26,580 in monthly costs. It also supported the mayor’s plan to seek grants to pay for some of the costs.
The one-time costs, $60,000 of which is designated for the site purchase, would likely be paid out of the city’s general fund, Larson said. The monthly costs, which include the power bill, security, and garbage and portable toilet services, would hopefully get funded by grants the city would apply for through the county’s homeless funds, nonprofits such as the Grays Harbor Community Foundation, Seabrook Foundation and, potentially, the Quinault Indian Nation, Larson said.
There are several property owners interested in selling to the city, and there is a preferred site the city has its eye on, but Larson said he’s not ready to disclose its location.
In July, the city cleared people and demolished numerous makeshift shacks and dwellings from a longstanding homeless camp along the Chehalis River next to the railroad tracks near downtown. Over the years the encampment fluctuated in size, but at its peak there were well over 120 people. The number dipped after the city purchased the property for $295,000 a year ago from the private owner.
The city opened a sanctioned tent shelter facility July 15 behind City Hall, officially called the Temporary Alternative Shelter Location. The City Hall shelter quickly filled up and currently has 48 tents set up with 62 people staying there.
There were strong opinions both for and against the plan to buy property for homeless camping. Tim Alstrom, who supported the plan, said it would be unwise to abandon finding a long-term site after the city already opened a temporary shelter behind City Hall.
“I’m quite concerned about the money also, but I’m weighing the alternatives if we don’t act and find a long-term property,” said Alstrom. “We’ve already charted a path. To bail out now would be a huge mistake.”
Schave, who will face Larson in this November’s election for Aberdeen mayor, opposes buying land for a new camping site. Schave said he thinks a community house, established in one of Aberdeen’s vacant buildings with rules and services on hand to help transition people out of being homeless, would be a better path forward.
“We’re looking at $380,000 per year to run this camp. With that kind of money, we could do better going the other direction with a community house,” said Schave, who added that he thinks the city should’ve discussed the financial logistics of a homeless shelter before clearing the city’s major unsanctioned encampment along the Chehalis River. “Dollar for dollar, it would be the better way to approach this. All we have to do is work with the county to get the money.”
Larson responded by saying he believes the per-person cost would be smaller for running a camping facility.
Andrews was also against the idea of purchasing property, and said she wished the county and state, which have dedicated funds to address homelessness, were playing a bigger role.
“I’m saddened by the fact we have to go through grant applications with the county and other agencies, and that it’s fallen solely on Aberdeen,” said Andrews.
There was a long waiting list for people interested in getting into the city’s camp, but now it’s on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the site’s security guard Thursday afternoon. With the site at full capacity, homeless people don’t have many legal options for camping other than on downtown sidewalks, which city officials have said is allowed.
Council to vote on clearing Southside camps
The council voted mostly in favor of a recommendation from Larson to close all public access to the city-owned property on the south side of the Chehalis River, where some homeless people relocated after the city cleared the larger encampment on the riverfront near downtown. The plan would be to put up signs next to the wooded area adjacent to the bike path and require people camping there to leave, Larson said. During a walkthrough Thursday morning, there were about seven campsites and eight people there. One council member voted against the plan to clear the site.
Temporary shelter extended
With no property announced yet for Aberdeen’s more long-term shelter, it appears the temporary shelter behind City Hall will be used longer than originally expected. At Wednesday’s meeting, the council approved $45,000 in additional expenses, for a total of $85,000, to take the shelter through 90 days of operation, which would last until mid-October. The shelter was initially approved for just a 30-day period.
Shelter coordinator job approved
Along with the proposed budget for a longtime homeless shelter, the council approved a recommendation to to issue a Request for Qualifications for someone to provide services as a shelter location coordinator. It would be a contracted position, with $60,000 as the expected value of the contract according to to Larson. The coordinator could potentially start when the temporary shelter is still operating, and then transition to the more permanent site.