Aberdeen mayor proposes acquiring property for homeless-mitigation site

Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson is interested in creating a homeless-mitigation site at an undeveloped plot of land at 303 E Market St., next to the Aberdeen Transit Station, which is currently owned by the Grays Habor Transit Authority. The Grays Harbor Transit Board considered a proposal from Larson’s office for the City of Aberdeen at Tuesday’s meeting, which requests the transit board approve a lease of the property at an annual amount of $12,000.

He said that if it’s approved and built, the facility would be a place where “any homeless individual on public property would be asked to go,” including those residing at the riverfront encampments once the city can proceed with its plan to clear the encampments.

Larson said the plan is unrelated to an ongoing federal lawsuit that argues the city must provide an alternate living space for homeless people living along the Chehalis River near downtown, which is the city’s largest homeless encampment.

“With the lawsuit coming to somewhat of a conclusion, we feel comfortable moving forward on trying to put together a mitigation site to better address the impacts of homelessness on downtown and the city, in the sense of providing somewhere for individuals to go so they aren’t dispersed among our commercial district and residential areas, where there are greater chances of impacts to all individuals,” said Larson.

A letter from Larson’s office states the site would be surrounded by privacy fencing, with access limited to a single gated entrance on South H Street and 24/7 on-site security. It would be intended to be a one-year program, Larson wrote. It would also be developed by laying down gravel and partially paved, the letter states.

Other specifics of the site are still in the early stages, but Larson said it would likely be similar to facilities in Olympia and Walla Walla. He said the Aberdeen City Council would discuss the idea at its meeting tonight, and that there would be opportunities for public comment on the idea if it moves forward. The proposed lease states it’s a one-year lease commencing July 1, and going through June 30 2020, with the option to extend the lease for two one-year periods. The proposal would also seek to indemnify the transit authority and other parties involved from claims or lawsuits.

Aspects including how many people the site could hold and whether structures would be built on it, are yet to be determined, Larson said, adding that this idea came out of discussions with the county, Hoquiam and other agencies to operate a locally run site for homeless people. He said this site would likely be a pilot project to showcase a potential way to address homelessness in the area. Larson said he envisions it being partially funded through the county’s funds to address homelessness.

The Rev. Sarah Monroe, who operates the Westport shelter Chaplains on the Harbor and is one of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit against Aberdeen, spoke in favor of the idea to create a homeless-mitigation site.

“I am happy to see the city exploring options for a solution, and I very much hope it can be a stepping stone for longer-term solutions towards ending homelessness in Grays Harbor,” said Monroe.

The current lawsuit facing Aberdeen relates to the city’s plan to eventually clear all people living at the riverfront camp. The plaintiffs — two homeless advocates and eight riverfront inhabitants — argue the city must set aside an alternate space for the people to move to. At a hearing May 7 in Tacoma, Federal Judge Ronald B. Leighton put a hold on the city’s plans to clear the site and said the two sides should work together to come to an agreement. The ordinance allowing the city to clear the site was set to go into effect this past Monday, but no action has been taken on it yet.

Larson said the lawsuit has no connection to his current plan for a mitigation site, and he said this plan was being worked on prior to another federal lawsuit that was filed in November over the city’s restrictions to the riverfront encampments.

Phil Calloway, president of the homeless assistance nonprofit Revival of Grays Harbor, said he’s concerned about the longevity of such a facility, and was concerned who would operate it.

“My concern would be who’s going to control this,” said Calloway. “I’ve seen how they do camps up north, they seem to do well as long as someone’s running it.”