Aberdeen performs major homeless camp cleanup

Residents temporarily displaced as city removes makeshift structures, provides new tents

The city of Aberdeen conducted a major cleanup of the homeless camp on East River Street on Friday, March 10, tearing down makeshift structures and clearing away debris before allowing residents to reoccupy the space in city-provided and personal tents.

Some temporarily displaced camp residents, along with homeless advocates, expressed concern and frustration at the city’s action.

Starting at 9 a.m. Friday, the city’s Public Works Department labored for about six hours, using excavators, dump trucks and shovels to clear a section of East River Street near the Chehalis River bridge, a site previously filled with more than a dozen makeshift shelters of wood, metal, tarps and other material.

According to Aberdeen City Administrator Ruth Clemens, the city’s homelessness response committee recommended the cleanup as part of its short term strategy to address homelessness after receiving “ongoing complaints” about the condition of the camp from local businesses and community members.

“Recognizing that there were sanitation issues down here, the homelessness response committee decided we needed to act and come down here and clean up,” Clemens said.

The cleanup was also intended to mitigate health and fire hazards at the camp, as well as maintain the city’s right-of-way, according to Clemens.

Aberdeen police delivered a written notice of the cleanup on Tuesday, March 7, which instructed residents to “remove all personal property” from the area, and informed them “anything that remains after March 10, 2023 will be considered garbage and will be disposed of.” Police then returned each day prior to the cleanup to “alert and prepare” residents, Clemens said.

The notice gave residents the opportunity to put belongings in a storage unit for up to 60 days, but Aberdeen Code Enforcement Officer Bill Sidor said the city didn’t receive any such requests prior to the cleanup.

Sidor said he recently received complaints that the makeshift structures at the site weren’t up to the city’s building codes.

As the city started the cleanup, a local grassroots advocacy group, the Chehalis River Mutual Aid Network, organized nearby in protest of the city’s action, according to a news release from the group. The group set up a tent to provide food and assistance, while about a dozen people held signs with messages such as “stop the sweep.”

While the city cleaned the site, residents were allowed to move belongings temporarily to the north side of the railroad tracks to a piece of property owned by a local business. Some residents piled belongings into city trucks and moved to stay somewhere else.

Clemens said the city partnered with several human service agencies, including Coastal Community Action Program (CCAP), Destination Hope and Recovery (DHR), and others to assist residents during the cleanup.

“We want to try and mitigate the trauma that happens when you do this,” said Laina Caldwell, a behavior health navigator for the three central Grays Harbor police departments. “But it is a biohazard, so the city has no choice, they have to clean it.”

Caldwell said she and representatives from other local groups had been visiting the camps each week to refer people to services. Moving forward, those visits will involve “creating a plan to come down here and work with people on a weekly basis to maintain their ‘houses and yards’ so it doesn’t get out of control,” Caldwell said.

Some residents have moved with the camp throughout the last several years as the city has shifted its sanctioned location from the banks of the Chehalis, to the city hall parking lot, and now to its current location on River Street.

That’s the case for Ronnie Renner and Misty Micheau, who waited on the north side of the railroad tracks Tuesday as the city cleaned the camp. Micheau acknowledged some of the “nastiness” that had been in the camp, but said some people had worked hard to assemble shelters there.

Renner said he had built a relatively weather-proof shelter with wood and tarps.

“There was some dirtiness over there, but that’s still not right for them to destroy people’s cabins and stuff,” said Shauna Shelton, another resident of the camp. “They worked day and night on those. Our blood, sweat and tears goes into whatever we built.”

Shelton added: “They say we’re homeless, well, we’re not, until you guys take our homes. We build our homes, we try to have a home.”

The city replaced the structures with 15 FEMA-grade weather tents for the site, as well as plastic pallets to keep them off the ground. Some people still chose to set up personal tents. The city’s tents were leftover supplies from the 150 tents ordered for the former camp behind city hall.

Clemens said the new structures will make it easier to conduct future cleaning of the site, which has, up to this point, been “very, very difficult to keep up.” According to Clemens, the city has been spending $16,000 to $20,000 each month on cleanup related to homeless camps around the city, much of it in paid time for public works staff.

Clemens said she didn’t have an estimate on what Friday’s cleanup alone cost the city, but that the number was probably “huge,” because two to four police officers and eight to 10 public works employees stayed at the site throughout the day.

In an effort to control trash, the city recently provided two industrial dumpsters for homeless camps in the area. Another camp exists just north of the River Street site, but lies on property owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The city’s homelessness response committee, which is made up of city council members, local business owners and community members, is also working on a long-term plan to address homelessness. In February the city launched a survey intended to garner feedback from business owners about homelessness in Aberdeen, and Clemens said another survey will poll the broader community in the coming weeks.

Caldwell said, along with CCAP and DHR, she will be gathering responses to the survey from the homeless population itself. According to Clemens, the city hopes to involve a member of the homeless community on the response committee as well.

“We want to hear from everyone what they believe successfully addressing homelessness looks like,” Clemens said. “We want to implement a strategy that can include everyone’s ideas on this. It’s a community issue and we want community feedback.”

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