The Aberdeen City Council took a major step this week in prohibiting a large swath of riverfront property from being used as a homeless camp.
The council passed the first reading of an ordinance denying public access to area, which was purchased by the city last year. It has been the area’s largest homeless encampment for years.
Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson submitted the ordinance, which states that after it’s passed, the property would be closed to all public access. Citizens spoke both for and against the ordinance at the public-comment period of Wednesday’s council meeting, including a couple homeless people from the encampment who asked they be given more time so they might find alternative places to stay. There were 10 votes in favor of the ordinance, one no vote and one council member who abstained in the voice vote. A public hearing on the ordinance will be held at the next council meeting April 24 as well as the second of three readings.
Those who voted for the ordinance were: Kathi Prieto, Dee Anne Shaw, Jerrick Rodgers, Karen Rowe, Tawni Andrews, John Maki, Pete Schave, Margo Shortt, Tim Alstrom and Jeff Cook. Jim Cook abstained from voting, and Frank Gordon was the one member who voted ‘No.’
Larson was not at the meeting and said he was out of town visiting a friend abroad. But he said in a phone interview there was little he can say about the ordinance because of “potential litigation” regarding it.
“Giving any details as to dates and specifics at this time would be inappropriate just because none of that has been decided yet,” said Larson.
He added there’s a “high likelihood based on communications we’ve received” that there will be an attempt at legal action regardless of what action the city takes with the ordinance.
When asked if there’s somewhere else the city will offer people to move to, Larson said there are places in the city homeless people can live, such as city right of ways, sidewalks and other spaces where homeless people are allowed to live.
“There are behavioral aspects separate from homelessness that might be enforceable, but being homeless itself is not illegal in the City of Aberdeen,” he said.
Some laws aimed at the homeless in cities around the country have been challenged in recent years for various reasons and councilman Frank Gordon said he’s concerned this ordinance could lead to another lawsuit.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, City Attorney Patrice Kent declined to say if she thought the ordinance could be challenged in federal court: “I’m probably not going to answer that question,” she said.
Last November, three homeless advocates sued the city in federal court over its visitor restrictions to the city-owned encampment, saying it violated their First Amendment rights. The federal judge sided with the plaintiffs, prompting Aberdeen to throw out its permit system. The judge also ruled the city had to pay the plaintiffs $18,000 as settlement. The permit system had required people to get approval from the city in order to visit people at the camps, regardless of whether they’re family, friends or just people they’re bringing supplies to.
The camps are located on a thin strip of land on the riverbank, separated from the city by multiple train tracks, where people have lived in tents, shacks and vehicles for decades. In a press release from his office, Larson requested the council consider if the “life safety, public safety and public welfare concerns” warranted closing the site to the public. Larson cites an incident from May 2018 where a woman trying to cross the tracks lost both legs when she was run over by a train. One council member said he’s heard the camp size has decreased since the summer to 38, but Dawn Huntsman, Revival of Grays Harbor vice president, said that’s wrong and that there are still over 100 people staying there.
In the first public comment period, Christopher Emerson, 34, said he lives at the riverfront and is trying to get housing through the Coastal Community Action Program and is on a waiting list, and added he eventually wants to go back to college. He pleaded that some be allowed to live on the river longer if they aren’t causing harm and have followed the city’s rules.
“We have nowhere to go, and a lot of us aren’t hurting anyone down there,” said Emerson, who added he’s among those who’ve helped police with finding criminals at the encampment.
After the meeting, Emerson said he isn’t sure where he’d go if the city forced him to move from his shack on the river. He guessed probably he’d just be on the sidewalk.
“I don’t know, my parents are dead, I don’t got nobody,” said Emerson. “They’re going to make me sleep on the sidewalk here where I can’t have a fireplace, which I have in my structure. It’s not hurting anyone, if I burn anyone down it’s myself.”
Before going up to the podium for his comment, a man sitting next to Emerson complained loudly, “take a bath.”
Council member Jim Cook, who abstained from voting, said he did so because he didn’t like the mayor sending the ordinance to the council until a day before the meeting to review it. He added during the meeting that something more needs to be done to figure out where those at the camp will relocate to.
“We need to focus on somehow supplying a place to be,” said Cook. “A place to direct these people to at least get them sheltered and out of the rain so they don’t freeze to death in the winter. There are human rights that need to be addressed. This ‘Move along Johnny’ does not solve the problem.”
Another homeless person and a downtown business worker said they were concerned about the campers spreading into downtown if they’re moved there with nowhere to go.
In contrast, several council members said enough time has passed since the fall when some camp residents were given authorization papers saying that May 1 was the last day they were allowed to be there.
Council member Kathi Prieto was initially conflicted about the ordinance and thought more time should be given before moving people, but she ended up voting in favor of the ordinance. Prieto said she has a drug-addicted son in prison, and said it’s important to stop enabling people who are addicted, and that at some point you need to cut them off.
“You learn by watching friends who are enabling what not to do.” she said. “You have to cut them off, and have them figure it out for themselves. If they cannot figure it out, you have to let them hit bottom. That’s what we had happen in this case.”
Council member Karen Rowe was also in favor of the ordinance, saying she wants to help people but at some point the people living at the camps have to want to help themselves.
“Sometimes you have to want help to get help,” said Rowe. “We are not entitled to get something for the mere fact that we are alive. If you want something, you have to want it and go get it, and do things for yourself to make things happen.”
Larson said he anticipates specifics of the ordinance and what action will be taken on it will be discussed at the public hearing April 24, which is on the third floor of Aberdeen City Hall at 7:15 p.m.