What to do with the homeless?

In the last several years, people from the homeless population have created a variety of problems in Aberdeen’s downtown core.

The city seems to have had enough, and staff, starting with, want to find a way to solve those problems. Aberdeen’s residents want the same thing. But the issue is where to put the homeless camps.

In recent years, there has been a homeless camp on River Street near the Chehalis River bank, and then that shifted to Aberdeen City Hall’s parking lot. And then the homeless people who lived in the parking lot got evicted in February 2022. Now, they’re back on River Street, and one block north on East State Street.

And the smell is putrid.

The evictions from the Aberdeen City Hall parking lot — which was supposed to be a temporary site — weren’t just because people were living on the lot. It was because of what they were doing, with rampant garbage, other waste and the illicit behavior that happened within the area.

Trying to move them to some place better has been difficult, according to Schave. He spoke at an informal meeting on Thursday morning, Sept. 29, at Aberdeen City Hall. He was there to discuss with local business owners where the homeless population should go.

About 60 people attended, according to The Daily World. But apparently not all business owners were notified in time to plan to attend the meeting.

Bryce Romero, owner of The Taproom, said he didn’t find out about the meeting from the city. He found out when he was tagged in a social media post. Another prominent business person in downtown Aberdeen said something similar.

“It would have been nice to have some forewarning so I could have planned to be there,” Romero said Monday. “I found out because someone tagged me on a Facebook post. But, by that time I already had my schedule set.”

The first issue Schave brought up at the meeting is how the city needs to find a place for the homeless and camping populations to go.

“All the state legislation and courts have dictated in a nutshell is we have to have a place (for them) to go,” Schave said. “Otherwise, we can’t enforce a lot of what we want to enforce. That’s the big thing, a place to go.”

According to Schave, he and Kevin Pine, Grays Harbor County commissioner for District 2, have been “looking all over for where this place to go could be.”

“There’s no good answer,” Schave said. “Nobody wants to provide a place to go. No one wants it in their neighborhood. What’s more, we’ve struggled to even find a place. We’ve put together a map of all the county properties and a map of all the city properties. We’ve looked high and low. We haven’t had any success.”

The move to River Street sounds like a temporary one.

“Right now, they’re congregated down on River Street under the bridge, because that seemed like … to just let that go there has been kind of a relief hopefully for downtown, but it hasn’t really quite worked out too well,” Schave said.

Schave said the city goes down there “at least” once per week and staff cleans up at the site.

“Then by the next day, it’s a pigsty,” Schave said.

Joyceanne Collins, 48, from Aberdeen, lives at the encampment on River Street. According to Collins, she was evicted from her home 18 months ago. She recently had to downgrade her home situation to a home-made camp shelter.

Her belongings fit into two shopping carts. Her plan is to stay in an adjacent homeless camp along the railroad tracks that lead to underneath the Chehalis River Bridge.

Collins, who sleeps outside, burns hand sanitizer in an empty tuna can to stay warm at night, according to an interview with The Daily World. She shared her idea for how to help people like her who sleep in the elements.

“I think there should be an organization for a building just for that,” Collins said.

If Schave’s claim is correct, it’s not that simple to find a place. Schave wants ideas.

“I don’t have any new ideas,” said Schave. “Like I said, Kevin and I have been working on what we can do to find a place to go. That’s the big catch here.”

According to Schave, Aberdeen Police Department’s “hands are tied,” with what they can do.

Schave wondered what would happen if the police were to start arresting the homeless people who are causing problems.

“If we were to trespass the campers, for my part I like to call them campers,” Schave said. “I want to make that clear. I don’t like the term ‘homeless’ anymore. What I’ve discovered, most of them are not homeless. They’re campers. So, if we arrest them, where do we put them? For the fines, who pays the fines, because they don’t have any money. It just all builds up and adds problems.”

According to Aberdeen Police Chief Dale Green, the problems the homeless are causing are not new and they’ve gotten “exponentially worse.”

Green explained the limitations APD officers have, why the problem has gotten worse from law enforcement’s perspective, and what APD can do with the residents’ help.

The first limitation, according to Green, is the Martin v. The City of Boise decision. Green explained the decision, which came from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Basically, as long as there’s no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property on a false premise that they have a choice in the manner,” Green said.

Green said that law is a “tremendous game changer,” for law enforcement. They can’t evict campers from lying on the sidewalks in downtown Aberdeen.

APD officers can’t be coercive with the people who are staying in tents and sleeping bags throughout the downtown core, either.

“We’re still the United States of America, so people have a right to hang out wherever they want as long as they’re following the laws,” Green said. “Our challenges, we need to make sure we have laws we can enforce.”

One thing APD officers do have, is the ability to cite people for trespassing. But it sounds like they need help in order to do it. According to Green, that’s where downtown Aberdeen business owners come in because they need to report the trespassing to APD.

As far as how long APD can keep people in the jail, it’s not up to the police.

“When we arrest somebody for criminal trespass, once they get to our jail and our handcuffs are off, we have no control over what happens,” Green said. “That’s a function of the prosecuting attorney. We can’t control how long people stay in our facility.”

Police officers also apparently cannot remove narcotics from people, according to Green.

“We cannot use force to take that meth or cocaine or fentanyl, we can’t legally do that,” Green said. “If they want to give it to us, we’ll take it and destroy it. But we can’t physically put handcuffs on somebody, or grab them, or stop them from doing that. That’s the challenge that we’re looking at.”

The fact they have to wait for a formal drug charge, and that they’re not able to just make a handcuff arrest in such a situation, is “incredibly frustrating” to Green.

Green asked the business owners who were at the meeting to make sure to keep their trespass notices posted and updated.

“And then calling us when people are doing that,” Green said about the drug use.

Romero shared what he would like to see from his business that sits on the corner of East Wishkah Street and South Broadway Street.

“I think for me,” Romero said, “you’re never going to eradicate the issue. But I know the big thing is (the garbage.) The disheveled mess. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you need to be dirty. From where I stand, there are three trash cans within a quarter of a block.”

Romero said most of the problem, in his view, lies with the people who are on drugs.

To the city’s credit, Romero said the downtown area has improved a lot in the past few years.

Romero hopes it improves even more.

“I just want people to feel safe downtown and not have to worry,” Romero said.

The Daily World Editor Michael Wagar contributed to this story.

Michael Wagar | The Daily World
A homeless camp at the base of the Chehalis River Bridge reeked with the smell of urine downwind of the shelters on Monday afternoon.

Michael Wagar | The Daily World A homeless camp at the base of the Chehalis River Bridge reeked with the smell of urine downwind of the shelters on Monday afternoon.