Aberdeen Council narrowly passes camping ordinance

The Aberdeen City Council narrowly passed amendments to its camping ordinance on Wednesday, Nov. 10, by a vote of 6-5.

The amendments add a misdemeanor offense for those refusing to remove camps from city property that are not designated for camping.

Using the most visible example, at the tent camp next to City Hall formerly known as the Temporary Alternative Shelter Location or TASL, camping there is now a misdemeanor offense, said Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate. Officers can now approach people camping there and in other areas not designated for camping and ask them to move or be subject to fine or arrest.

The changes give law enforcement a tool to clear areas like the city parking lot next to City Hall, while still providing other areas for the homeless to camp. The previous ordinance gave police no legal way to address illegal camping on city property.

The debate was lengthy among the council. Council member Tiesa Meskis reiterated the argument she used during the previous two readings: “I think this is the wrong direction for us to go on this issue. I’m all for giving our public safety tools to do their job, but I don’t think this is the proper tool to do this job.”

There are no immediate plans to clear the camp adjacent to City Hall, said Shumate.

“We have had people camping there for two and a half years now and that’s not lost in me,” said Shumate. “It’s not lost on me we’re in the middle of the worst time of year to get people moving elsewhere, and we have Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up as well.”

Shumate said he is scheduling a meeting with Mayor Pete Schave, current contract corporation counsel Jeff Myers and other department heads to discuss next steps.

“At some point, obviously the city is going to move forward with closing that down so they can get their parking lot back,” said Shumate. “How long that is going to take, we don’t really know yet.”

At the Nov. 10 meeting, council member Kati Kachman recommended the map showing areas in the city where camping will be allowed be evaluated and updated. Shumate later said the map developed by the city several years ago that shows “yellow zones” — areas marked yellow that show displaced campers areas in the downtown core where it is legal to camp — will be reevaluated.

Shumate said that reevaluation process will work toward seeing “if there are other areas in the city we can extend that yellow zone, as we often call it, that might be less problematic to our citizens and businesses, and that will take some time for discussion with the mayor and corporation counsel.”

For himself personally, Shumate said one of the major driving forces behind the changes to the camping ordinance had to do with other city properties that were attracting homeless camping.

“The old museum (armory building, destroyed by fire in 2018), we ended up having a camp set up right in front of some residential areas and there was nothing we could do but write infractions,” said Shumate. “But we couldn’t force them to leave.”

Police were able to talk to the campers and get them to vacate the spot. The city then came in and erected a fence, another expense to the residents of the city. Another example would be the Gateway Center lot on the west side of Wishkah Bridge. Shumate said, while it hasn’t happened yet, under previous city code if campers moved into that area right at the entrance to town there was nothing law enforcement could have done about it.

A few council members expressed concerns over the $25 fine that was mentioned in the ordinance under consideration at the Nov. 10 meeting. Shumate said that fine was already on the books and the amendments the council was voting on did nothing to change that. Council member Liz Ellis recommended changing that fine amount to $1, which was outside the scope of the discussion. Shumate said it’s the court that determines the exact amount of the penalty.

The ordinance passed simply added the misdemeanor offense to the city’s camping ordinance.

Council member Alan Richrod called the ordinance “lipstick and eyeliner on a pig,” doing nothing to address the issue of homelessness in the city.

“We’re not even addressing the problem by forcing people out of a certain area and pushing them across the street, which happens to be in front of the buildings downtown,” said Richrod. “The whole point of it was to get homeless people out of downtown so that they’re not sleeping on the sidewalks in front of places of business. But now we’re telling them that’s where they have to go.”

The problem is lack of housing, said Richrod. Council member Tawni Andrews countered that the city does not have a housing department, but the county does, and is sitting on more than $1 million in funding for a low-barrier shelter county commissioners refuse to push forward.

The final 6-5 vote had Andrews, Frank Gordon, Kachman, John Maki, Dee Anne Shaw and Melvin Taylor voting yes. Ellis, Joshua Francy, Meskis, Richrod and Margo Shortt voted no. Council member Deborah Ross was absent.

Shumate said later the map showing the yellow zones where camping was allowed satisfies the regulations imposed by the Martin v. Boise Supreme Court case that says a municipality can’t enforce camping laws if there is no other place for the homeless to go. The map clearly shows areas where it is legal to camp.

The goal is not to fine anyone, and certainly not to arrest anyone, said Shumate.

“We are going to do our due diligence in doing what we can do to be of assistance. If we have any veterans I think there are some other things we can do to assist them. And we’re going to work with CCAP” to help those displaced find other places to live, said Shumate.

“Like we did at the river camp, if there are other places they can go that are outside of the city limits or even outside of the county, we’re going to help facilitate that.”