Aberdeen moves toward stricter public camping enforcement

A homeless camp on a parking lot near City Hall is causing some serious headaches for the city of Aberdeen, as local officials struggle to come up with a solution for the problem.

In the latest attempt to get a handle on the situation, the Aberdeen City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on a controversial but necessary ordinance that would criminalize public camping in certain areas. The public hearing is set for Oct. 27.

The ordinance, if approved by the City Council, would subject campers to a misdemeanor infraction if they aren’t camping in locations afforded by current city code.

The City Council passed the first reading of an amendment to its public camping ordinance on Oct. 13, setting the stage for the upcoming public hearing and a second reading of the language.

The problem is rooted in a decision the City Council made in 2019 to pass an amendment in response to the Martin v. Bose court case that basically stated a city cannot enforce camping laws if there is no other place for the homeless to go. As a result, the city of Aberdeen was forced to keep the temporary alternative shelter location (TASL) operating next to City Hall.

The 2019 amendment states, in part, that “law enforcement shall not enforce the camping ordinance on portions of any street right-of-way that are not expressly reserved for vehicular or pedestrian travel, when there is no available overnight shelter for individuals or family units experiencing homelessness.”

That amendment to the city’s camping ordinance “decriminalized the rest of the public camping ordinance,” said Aberdeen Police Department Chief Steve Shumate in a report to the City Council.

“Because of this change, the city has not been able to properly manage public camping through various areas of the city. Examples include the former site of the alternative shelter location (TASL), which is now growing in size, the former site of the museum, the Tesla parking lot, etc.”

The alternative shelter site has clearly become a thorn in the side of local officials, who have been handcuffed by the court decision for years. The amendment would likely provide the tool needed to remove the homeless from the alternative shelter location and clear the camp once and for all.

But in doing so, the city of Aberdeen is also tasked with providing alternative sites for public camping. And, to its credit, those locations do exist. There are several blocks within the downtown district where public camping is allowed. A map detailing those locations has been in circulation for years and ran on the front page of The Daily World on Oct. 19

While it’s unfortunate that the temporary alternative shelter location’s days appear to be numbered, we don’t believe it was ever meant to be a permanent solution.