Public hearing scheduled for homeless camp temporary use permit

A public hearing to consider a temporary-use permit to create a longer-term homeless encampment on property purchased by the City of Aberdeen on South Michigan Street has been scheduled for the next Aberdeen City Council meeting Sept. 25.

The City Council on Wednesday approved the hearing to consider a one-year temporary-use permit to allow the construction of the camp while city staff considers potential zoning code modifications to allow for such a facility at the 421 S. Michigan St. property — a block or so from a previous homeless camp site purchased by the city and cleared of campers by the city earlier this year.

The purchase of the 31,000-square-foot property on Michigan Street to create a tent camp that would hold more than 100 people at a cost of $60,000 was approved by the City Council by an 8-3 vote at the Aug. 28 meeting.

Some council members expressed concern about the speed at which the Michigan Street property was purchased and how little time there was for council consideration of possible alternatives.

“I feel like this is being crammed down our throats,” said Ward 2 Councilwoman Kathi Prieto, adding she didn’t feel the council has had “time to consider other options.”

Councilwoman Dee Ann Shaw from Ward 6 said she had not realized the city would purchase the property immediately after the Aug. 28 vote allowing Mayor Erik Larson to do so. She said she believed there would be more discussion before the purchase was made.

“I very explicitly said I was going to sign the purchase and sale agreement,” said Larson. “I don’t know how much clearer it could have been.”

The council approved a motion to hold public hearing, with Ward 5 Councilman Peter Schave the lone no vote. He told the council and the public who attended the meeting later that he was against the plan to use the Michigan Street property as a homeless camping facility.

Larson told the council that after the Sept. 25 public hearing, the council should expect the temporary-use permit to come up for a vote before the conclusion of that meeting.

Public comment

Several members of the public commented on the proposed camp early in the meeting, most opposing it. One mentioned the fact that it is right along the railroad tracks, which in her mind made it subject to at least one of the public safety concerns that led to the clearing of the river camp property. Several asked about an exit strategy for the camp; what happens when the new site fills up?

Carol Tuhkanen, a resident of Ward 3 who co-owns Finn Electric at 615 W. State Street — adjacent to the Michigan Street property — spoke in opposition to the location at the Aug. 28 meeting, citing increasing security and safety concerns for hers and other businesses in the area. She spoke again Wednesday, saying she, like some members of the council, were not aware the property would be purchased immediately after the Aug. 28 meeting.

“I’m not happy about the purchase,” she said, then handed a two-page letter to members of the council and local media.

In the letter, Tuhkanen wrote, “It is our belief that giving a homeless person a tent and a sleeping bag is not the answer. It would be best for the homeless to find out why they’re in the position they are in and address that. If it is a mental health issue, get them the help they need. If it is a drug addiction problem, there are programs for that too. Give them a choice – treatment or jail.”

She continued, “As a society we cannot continue to give a free ride with no solution to the problems. We believe that the homeless population will continue to multiply if we stay on this same path.”

Tuhkanen suggested the mayor and council re-evaluate the situation, not build a bigger, more permanent homeless camp on the Michigan Street property.

“Please quit wasting taxpayers’ money,” wrote Tuhkanen. “Find a solution that will get results.” She added, “We want to see a program that helps those in our community, not tear it down.”