Transit board denies lease proposal for Aberdeen homeless mitigation site

The Grays Harbor Transit Board on Tuesday unanimously denied a lease proposal from the City of Aberdeen to rent a vacant lot next to the downtown bus station and turn it into a homeless mitigation facility.

During the Transit board meeting Tuesday afternoon, Cosmopolis Mayor Frank Chestnut made the motion to deny Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson’s proposal: a one-year, $12,000 lease to the Grays Harbor Transit Authority. If it had been approved and created, the property would have been fenced and covered in gravel as a place for homeless people to live.

People camping elsewhere in Aberdeen, including those at the riverfront, would have been asked to move to the new facility, Larson said in an email. The plan was for it to be similar to facilities in Olympia and Walla Walla, he added.

Details such as how many people it would hold, and whether it would allow for residential structures to be built, were yet to be decided; but the lease proposal states it would have had 24/7 on-site security, with access limited to one gate on H Street.

Chestnut said he’s opposed because the Transit Authority already had plans to turn that particular lot into a turnaround area and expansion of the transit station.

Ken Mehin, general manager of Grays Harbor Transit, said before the meeting that the authority is opposed to the idea: “It’s not a good mix with the passengers.”

After the lease was denied, Larson said the city also has been looking at other properties to create a homeless mitigation site, but he thought this one was preferable. He said the recent push to create a site for homeless people to move to is due in part to the city’s goal of clearing the large encampment along the Chehalis River near downtown.

Grays Harbor County Commissioner Randy Ross acknowledged during the meeting that something needed to be done about the homeless problem, but he didn’t think this property was right for it.

“The elephant in the room is how do we mitigate the camping site,” said Ross. “I don’t know that’s the best property. I think it comes with more issues than we’re able to deal with here. But there still has to be a place, because I know the City of Aberdeen is under fire to find a way to mitigate around this problem, but I don’t think this is it.”

Larson said the proposal was not related to an ongoing federal lawsuit between the city and 10 plaintiffs, including homeless people and their advocates. But he said because the city does plan to clear the homeless camp, having a mitigation facility would assist with providing a space for the people to go instead of downtown.

The lawsuit argues that the city must provide alternative space for the riverfront homeless people to move to before forcing them off the property. A 30-day stay, or hold, on clearing the camps had been imposed by judge Ronald B. Leighton while the parties discussed a solution, and it was set to expire late last week. However, Larson said the stay was recently given a one-time extension for another 30 days.

The Transit board meeting in Hoquiam was packed Tuesday, with several Aberdeen City Council members in attendance. Several members of the public spoke out against leasing the property for homeless mitigation, and said they think it would negatively impact the downtown area.

“I just think it’s way too close to downtown businesses,” Aberdeen City Council President Tawni Andrews said after the meeting. “I think we can find a better space.”