Aberdeen homeless discussion: ‘Nobody’s going to fix this problem for us’

With shelter funding available, concerns remain over contracts, safety and ‘homeless utopia’

With several sources of funding in place to address Aberdeen’s vexing problem of homelessness, city council members and leaders met Wednesday evening to discuss the path forward and if the city should act on an immediate solution — the purchase of a permanent shelter.

Sharing thoughts in an informal workshop, council members expressed concerns about partnering with Grays Harbor County, ongoing shelter costs, and whether or not a shelter would produce identifiable results and allow for greater enforcement of camping ordinances.

While there was doubt in Wednesday’s discussion that the city should get involved with addressing social issues like mental health and housing directly, others said too much time had passed without the city taking substantive action.

“We’ve come to a realization that nobody’s going to fix this problem for us,” said Mayor Doug Orr. “It has to be this council and this group of people that does it, because I really don’t feel that the county is going to step in and help us as much as we would like them to. We can find our own path.”

Councilor Sydney Newbill added that progress would be “more about us being willing to carve the path and then ask for help from other parties as needed.”

“We need to act,” said City Councilor Stan Sidor, who also called for the city to come up with a written plan to address homelessness. “We need to start taking some steps, even if they are stumbling walks along the way to some degree, even if we stub our toes, even if it’s not perfect, we just need to get off the starting blocks, and I feel like we’re still waiting at the starting line. That may not be fair, it may not be realistic, but the perception is there.”

The city’s committee on homelessness has worked for more than a year to survey the community and gather input on the issue, while City Administrator Ruth Clemens has reached out to other jurisdictions including the county for help.

In Wednesday’s discussion, council members expressed motivation to act, but did not come to a clear consensus about the potential purchase of a homeless shelter.

Money could come from several sources: Grays Harbor County is soliciting applications for up to $500,000 for capital investment in a shelter; the state Legislature allocated $20 million for unsheltered homeless in its 2024 capital budget; the city will receive $1.2 million this month from a state opioid settlement and has already budgeted $200,000 from the general fund for homelessness.

The city has identified a potential building to serve as the shelter but has not publicly released the location. According to the city’s legislative one-pager on the shelter, the goal is to renovate a building to use as a transitional shelter with coordinated services, use a “scattered-site” model to create more low-income housing units, and create safe vehicle parking.

DeElaina Caldwell, who serves as a behavioral health navigator for the three central Grays Harbor police departments, told the council the area needs a shelter to act as a “hub” for services. Caldwell said the shelter would allow service organizations to capitalize on and extend the amount of time people would be willing to seek treatment and allow them to stay in constant contact with the homeless community.

“If we have that place to house people temporarily while in crisis to build that rapport to then get that bed space and active recovery happen, I think you’re going to see more positive outcomes with the unhoused population in your community,” Caldwell said.

The county’s request for proposals for funds to buy a shelter, approved by commissioners March 5, states that the model will be a “low-barrier, high-intensity/co-located service model,” and should work toward offering physical and mental health treatments, substance abuse treatment, and access to housing and employment resources.

The city would have to apply for funds by April 30. But council members said they were worried about the legal details of the county’s request, especially a stipulation requiring a purchased building to be used as a homeless shelter “for the useful life of the resulting asset (typically 15-30 years),” or else the county would be reimbursed.

“I don’t want the RFP (request for proposals) at all,” said Councilor Debi Pieraccini, adding that Aberdeen could pursue the shelter project without the county funds.

“We could not live up to that RFP, it’s impossible,” she said. “Nobody could. We would be signing a contract with them for 30 years. We would be bound to it and then if they don’t live up to what they want us to do, we would have to pay them back anyway.”

“Let’s do it our way,” she added.

The county’s $500,000 comes from document recording fees. Under state law, at least three-quarters of those funds must be used to accomplish goals set by the county’s five-year plan for homelessness, which provides an outline to rapidly rehouse homeless people.

A shelter providing transitional housing is a resource that contributes to the goals of the plan, said Mike McNickle, director of Grays Harbor County Public Health.

“If we invest in shared specific need it is legal/allowable but we must have verification the asset is continued to be used for that purpose,” McNickle said in an email to The Daily World. He said that’s especially true if funds are tied to a specific use, like homeless housing. “If we paid for property for a shelter, then it became a city maintenance building it would be an ineligible use of the funds that purchased it.”

Councilor Liz Ellis advocated in favor of applying for the county funds.

“I just got this horrible wave of sadness hearing from my fellow colleagues that you are not seeing this RFP as an opportunity for Aberdeen,” Ellis said, citing the struggles the city has faced in providing safe encampments.

“We’ve missed so many opportunities over all these years, and if this council is going to let this one go by, we have totally let down this community,” she said.

Ellis also called the 30-year requirement “ridiculous,” but said the city should ask the county to amend its proposal to align with the city’s goals.

Sidor took it a step further.

“If the county is receiving money, state, federal or otherwise, and it’s supposed to be for the homeless and they’re not dedicating and using it, the city should move forward by filing a lawsuit against the county,” he said.

Along with concerns about funding shelter operations and spending general fund dollars, Councilor Kacey Morrison said she needed “assurances from APD and legal that the ordinances we already have on the books are perfectly fine are actually going to be enforced.”

Federal court rulings have said that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if there are no shelter beds available.

Caldwell said that by adding a shelter, “you are able to do arrests for behaviors, not for being homeless or having addiction, but those behaviors attached to that. Because there is no shelter in the area, there’s no ability for law enforcement to do the accountability aspect because there’s nothing there. The federal laws trump everything.”

Even with the potential for greater enforcement with a shelter, some council members still fear that purchasing a shelter would make Aberdeen a “homeless utopia,” according to a question posed Wednesday evening by Clemens, who said she had heard that argument before.

Sidor said that as a council member he would be “absolutely” willing to invest city money in buying a shelter facility and called homelessness a “number one priority.” He said the shelter should include “security onsite. We need cameras, we need patrols we need guards — I’m not talking about creating a jail or a prison, but we need people there to ensure that everybody is going to be safe, laws are going to be abided by.”

Sidor also expressed a desire to make a “clear segregation” between homeless people struggling with substance abuse, mental health or other problems who are “interested in making a change in their life” from those who “don’t give a damn.”

“If that can be identified and segregated in some way and addressed, versus those who it’s just their lifestyle choice,” he said.

Councilor David Gakin said homelessness shouldn’t be addressed with blanket solutions. He proposed creating a system that would categorize people based on their situation, giving examples that temporarily homeless people could be “level green,” elderly people could be “level blue,” while people with a single drug addiction would be “orange or yellow.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Orr stressed the importance of investing in a shelter.

“Whatever ball you guys want to kick down the road, we have to get this property,” he said.

“There are businesses, groups that have money that would love to invest in our downtown, and they’re just waiting for us to take this homeless issue out of the picture,” Orr said. “A soon as that happens, there will be investment downtown that will add more tax dollars.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 at clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.