The City of Aberdeen began clearing the large longtime homeless encampment along the Chehalis River Thursday, using excavators to demolish campsites that some had called home for years — shacks, tents and other homemade structures. City crews said they only targeted shacks after checking whether they were abandoned Thursday and Friday, avoiding campsites with people still in them.
The homeless camp sweep follows months of delays and federal lawsuits aimed at preventing the City of Aberdeen from clearing it. Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate and Deputy Chief Jay Staten delivered trespass notices Friday to those still on the property, and Shumate said the department will soon start citing people for trespassing.
“Those notices are basically saying ‘Look, the end is near, you’re on property closed to the public, and we already gave you the 72-hour notice,’” said Shumate.
The city opened a sanctioned encampment Tuesday in the City Hall parking lot that provides homeless people a place to stay, regardless of whether they’re from the riverfront. It started with 17 tents set up Tuesday, but as of Thursday morning it was full, with all 43 tents taken up. The Aberdeen City Council approved a one-time $30,000 cost last week to establish the facility that includes fencing, tents, sleeping bags and security services.
Shumate said that police went through the riverfront encampment Wednesday and contacted 39 people still living there. Of those 39, half told police they had living arrangements elsewhere lined-up, while half said they still had nowhere to go, Shumate said.
Eleven of the remaining people told police they’d be interested in using the City Hall parking lot facility, and five of them signed up, Shumate said. But with the city’s new facility now at full capacity, it appears some will have nowhere to go in town. The city’s concern is that some will camp on sidewalks, which is currently allowed if no other shelter is available.
Mayor Erik Larson said Thursday no alternative sites are being provided at this time to accommodate those who didn’t make it into the parking lot shelter.
“Right now we don’t have a specific plan for that,” said Larson.
But on Friday, Shumate said the city plans to add eight to 10 more tents to the City Hall facility by expanding it into the area that had been a service vehicle entrance. Because the city is still waiting to receive wooden pallets for the tents, Shumate said the added tents would hopefully be up Monday afternoon.
Of those remaining at the riverfront, many are unsure where they’ll move to, and some say they’ll refuse to use the City Hall shelter. Friends of Donna Ross, one of the ‘River Camp’ residents who’s still there, said Ross didn’t fully comprehend she had to leave. After her friends convinced her to come to City Hall, they were turned away because the site was full.
“It took us all day to convince her to come with us, and then they say ‘Oh we don’t have any left,’ so there’s a lot of miscommunication between the two sites,” said Apryl Boling. “It’s frustrating, because we don’t know if she’d be willing to move in there again.”
While many city council members agreed it was time to clear the site, some community members criticized the decision and said it would’ve made more sense to develop the property without forcing people off. Janae Chhith, a mayoral candidate this year for Aberdeen, said in a public Facebook post she would’ve prioritized having a homeless mitigation site opened before the site was closed. She also wrote that clearing the site “puts a burden on business owners who know patrons will not shop downtown,” and that it “disrespects and puts on display our most impoverished.
Tensions were high Thursday for remaining camp residents, including some who said they would refuse to use the city’s new sanctioned encampment in the City Hall Parking lot. Johnny Gullotto, one camp resident, was visibly upset as he watched workers demolish the structures surrounding his shack, breaking the glass of his shack and throwing items while shouting expletives.
Gullotto moved to a different campsite in town Friday before excavators demolished his shack, and said he’d refuse to ever use the city’s facility.
“It’s a cage, you get put into a box right next to the other box, you can’t have your own food, water, cot, you have to be in by 10 p.m. and out by 6 a.m., it’s a zoo,” said Gullotto.
For Shumate, he said it’s concerning people will camp in town with the City Hall facility at full capacity, and that he’s already aware of various campsites on the south side of the Chehalis River and elsewhere in town.
“Let’s face it, they’re not going to want to set up tents right by these businesses, although if some do it really does hurt the owners,” Shumate said Friday at the riverfront. “It’s something to be said the site is filled, when some people said, ‘No one will go there.’”
Overall, Shumate said conversations with the riverfront homeless went well, with most understanding they had to leave. But Shumate said he was frustrated with some who said they would go to the City Hall facility and then never showed.
Police officers have offered to help people move to another location, or to move their things into storage, where the city would hold belongings for up to 60 days.
Mayor Erik Larson was authorized by the Aberdeen City Council to negotiate for a more permanent property to house the homeless, but it’s unclear how long that will take.
Council member Dee Anne Shaw, who served on an ad hoc committee to establish the City Hall facility and address other homelessness issues, said she was surprised that the new site filled up so quickly. The City Hall shelter has taken in a number of homeless people who aren’t just from the riverfront, which Shaw said has been informative to understand the city’s overall homeless numbers.
“One of the reasons for building the site at the City Hall lot was to get a handle on how many spaces we might need when we open a permanent site,” said Shaw.
She added that the first rule at the City Hall facility is that guests must show proof of participation in Coordinated Entry at Coastal Community Action Program, which is the first step for homeless people to receive services that help them transition out of homelessness.
Almost a year has passed since the city purchased the riverfront land for $295,000 with the intention of clearing the property. Larson has denied the city has any intention to develop the property at this time, and said the city only purchased it to address safety and health concerns. Larson said the long process of clearing the site has been an “emotional rollercoaster,” and that he feels a sense of relief from finally acting on it.
”I commiserate with the fact these individuals really tried to build a home, even though it’s in a place it’s not allowed,” said Larson. “But I feel like a lot of individuals didn’t prepare for it or take it seriously. There was a lot more loss than there needed to be.”