For the past five years, the Rev. Sarah Monroe from Chaplains on the Harbor has served the role as a pastor and service provider for the more than 100 homeless people who live in tents, shacks and vehicles along the Chehalis River in Aberdeen.
The city recently purchased the land where most of the homeless are camping. As city officials work toward eventually removing everyone living on the riverfront, the city’s Public Works Department has begun regulating which homeless assistance groups can get the city’s written permission to enter the property, and Monroe was denied access. Monroe said she is upset with what she sees as the city’s attempts to make it more difficult for people living on the river to get help.
“To limit peoples’ access to support is cruel,” Monroe said in an interview. “I’m angry on behalf of people who are being isolated (at the camps).”
According to Public Works Director Rick Sangder, Monroe was denied because her application didn’t have a specific work plan or schedule.The city wants those providing services to go at certain hours each week, not on an open ended schedule. Monroe said her pastoral work requires her to respond to emergencies regardless of when they happen.
“One of the things pastoral care involves, if you ask any pastor, is responding in crisis. There’s not a schedule for when people die, when people get sick, or decide they’re suicidal and need to talk,” said Monroe, who operates a cold weather shelter in Westport that also provides free meals. “The plan is I’m their pastor, and I respond when there’s a need.”
In order to get the city’s written permission to enter the homeless camps, service providers fill out an application form from Aberdeen’s Public Works office. That application asks why the group wants access to the property, and states that applicants need to abide by the city’s rules regarding the site.
The completed forms are reviewed by Sangder and City Engineer Kris Koski, who decide if an organization gets access or is denied. Their decision is based on a flow chart — which was drafted by Koski and then reviewed and edited by Mayor Erik Larson and the city’s Legal Department. It checks if the applicants have a detailed work plan, and if they have “credentials with a recognized organization or agency.” Family members and friends who know people living on the riverfront also have to go through this process to visit them.
As an example of an approved organization, Revival of Grays Harbor is a non-profit homeless assistance group that the city has approved to have two days each week when they can go onto the property. Phil Calloway, the president of Revival, said he uses this time to check the wellness of campers and make sure they’re getting health and social services.
Calloway added that he believe’s it’s wrong for the city to deny service providers like Monroe access to the property to help people, and added that many of the clients Revival helps get services were connected to them by Monroe.
“I think it’s definitely wrong, her as a pastor should have the freedom to (provide service),” said Calloway. “I think they’re restricting some things in a bad way there. Revival has had people come through her for us to better them.”
Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate said that officers are not arresting people at the campsites simply for not having the city’s written authorization papers, and added that no one has been arrested for that so far.
Multiple campers told The Daily World that they have been confronted by police officers saying they have 24 hours to leave the property or would be arrested for a felony trespassing charge because they didn’t have their papers.
Shumate said that officers have been patrolling the area more heavily since the city began managing it, but added that the department is more focused on responding to other issues in the city than with checking campers’ for verification.
“My direction to (officers) is we want to focus our efforts on our downtown businesses and dealing with issues there,” said Shumate. “If they get called to the riverfront, obviously we’ll respond.”
Misty Micheau, 43, has lived on the property for the past eight years, but said she was recently denied authorization from the city because she moved away from the campsite for a month. Micheau said she was living with her boyfriend for that one month she was gone, but had to move back to the camps after her partner became ill and was placed on life support.
“I guess I moved and came back and they don’t want that, but under the circumstances you’d think they would understand,” said Micheau.
Shumate confirmed that officers likely have instructed people on the riverfront to leave the property because of not having the city’s approval, and said these efforts are keeping away people he believes were victimizing the rest of the homeless campers.
“People were coming and going, and individuals, quite frankly, were victimizing the homeless community,” he said. “From that standpoint, things are definitely better, because those who do not want to have contact with law enforcement are going elsewhere, and that’s a good thing.”
Monroe said she knows around four people who have been forced to move so far, who were either instructed to leave or were arrested for other charges and then are told they can’t return.
Going forward, Monroe said she would continue to serve as a pastor for people on the riverfront, which also involves taking people to medical and housing appointments, and checking in on the ill or giving them their last rites. She noted she is afraid police will at some point force her to leave.
Shumate wouldn’t rule out that police will enforce the restrictions on homeless assistance providers entering the property, but he said the department does support those looking to support the homeless people on the property.
“Obviously, anybody who’s down there looking to advocate and support that community, we support that,” he said. “On the flip side, I can’t say, ‘No, we’re not going to enforce any of that.’”
City’s steps to restrict and clear the site
When Mayor Erik Larson was asked about why there can’t be some organizations allowed in to assist whenever needed and without a schedule, Larson said he would much rather have individuals get services off-site from the camps unless it’s completely necessary for someone to get on-site care.
“Where it’s necessary, we’re working with individuals, and where it’s just convenient, we’re drawing a line and saying, ‘Convenience is not a factor,’” Larson said. “I think there’s a lot of people frustrated about losing the convenience, but it does not trump the safety issues, (like) the added access to the property and crossing the railroad.”
If someone is denied access to the property, Sangder and Larson said the city will work with organizations to create a schedule that they can accept.
In terms of an end goal, Larson has said the city wants to remove everyone from the property, and told The Daily World he is still looking for a property where the homeless people currently allowed on the property could move to.
“We’re trying to decrease the number of people on that property,” he said. “We’re not trying to make it a treatment facility, we’re trying to do the opposite of that.”
If the city did ever provide campsites or shelters for the riverfront campers, Larson said he does not envision it being a permanent shelter to address homelessness in the area, and would only be for the people moving from the riverfront.
“If we do something like that, it will be only for those people relocating, I do not see it being something that becomes a permanent service of the City of Aberdeen to address homelessness,” said Larson. “I don’t think that’s something the city is in a position to get behind at this point.”
Some homeless advocates and local residents on social media and in conversation have questioned whether the city’s process of restricting who goes down to the riverfront is legal, since it’s a city-owned property that was deemed restricted access.
Larson said because of the safety concerns of limiting people entering the property, the city has the right to make it restricted.