Larson expresses frustration in wake of homelessness protests

At Wednesday’s Aberdeen City Council meeting, Mayor Erik Larson expressed frustration over criticism from advocates for the homeless aimed at the city and himself, and said he wished a broad coalition of the community would come together to discuss and address the homelessness issue.

Larson was responding in part to a large protest in front of Aberdeen City Hall on June 15. The gathering featured speeches from Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, who was visiting Aberdeen that day, and organizers pushing for the city to add affordable housing and better address homelessness.

“It’s frustrating, because it has really been, ‘Hey, who wants to go protest city hall because they’re a bunch of bigots?’” said Larson. “That’s the rhetoric, instead of, ‘Here are some ideas, what’s your feedback? Can we talk?’ I haven’t seen that at all.”

Larson said he was frustrated no one let him know about the protest ahead of time, during which some camped in tents overnight in front of city hall. Going forward, Larson said he would try to organize a town hall type meeting to discuss ways to address homelessness, and hopes people come in with an open mind.

“I kind of want to create a reset. I’d like to set up something, and I’d like everyone to go in eyes wide open that maybe nobody is the bad guy,” he said. “Hopefully, some people can join me on that.”

The group that organized the June 15 protest, which calls itself Harbor Rising, had two people read out their goals at the public comment period of the city council meeting. These include calls for the city to add affordable housing to its long-term development plans, and to repeal two controversial new ordinances that discourage homeless people from resting on downtown sidewalks and panhandling.

“Struggling people have been told to keep silent,” Emily Nilsson read from the statement. “The city of Aberdeen is trying to push people out of sight and out of mind, instead of truly taking care of our people. We call on the city of Aberdeen to step up to the plate and build long-term solutions to poverty, starting with housing.”

Rev. Sarah Monroe from Chaplains on the Harbor, which helped organize the gathering with Bishop Curry, told The Daily World that she and others from the group that protested “will continue to come to the table to discuss ways the city can address this crisis.”

Last month, Larson negotiated with landowner Mike Lang for the city to buy Lang’s property along the Chehalis River where about 100 people are living in tents, cabins and vehicles. The goal would be to clean up the property, secure it, and eventually relocate everyone to other housing.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, Larson told The Daily World he does not wish to move people off the property without first finding somewhere else for them to move to.

“If the city doesn’t have somewhere for them to go, I have no interest in forcing them off,” he said. “… I could be overruled by that, but my intention is to buy the property, move everybody somewhere else, and relocate them into somewhere that’s much more sustainable, doesn’t have impact on the railroads and other things, and do that in a way that doesn’t create a crisis.”

Larson said he’s waiting for Lang to complete a property appraisal by July 3 before they resume discussions to purchase the property. On a May 23 city council meeting, Larson was approved by the council to purchase the property for no more than $295,000.

He added that he isn’t sure how fast the city will move to acquire the property and begin work on it after the appraisal is complete.