Renewed discussion about low-level crime in the Astoria commercial district and how it interfaces with the issue of homelessness was inevitable.
Not only are there obvious violations of accepted community standards at some times and places, but similar annoyances are a common issue in metropolitan areas and some smaller towns along the entire West Coast. It would be more surprising if Astoria did not have these problems than that it does.
As our stories last week reported, neither police nor city leaders regard homelessness as a crime. By now most Americans are well-aware that housing insecurity is caused by an array of factors — running the gamut from mental-health issues to personal economic disasters.
Few would desire to go back to the old days of arbitrarily enforcing laws against vagrancy that in effect made it a crime to be very poor. These laws were often selectively enforced against people of color or anyone who rubbed police the wrong way. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 outlawed such “arbitrary enforcement,” with Justice Sandra O’Connor writing that a California law allowed innocent people “to continue to walk the public streets ‘only at the whim of any police officer’ who happens to stop” them. Astoria has no interest in repeating this old, reprehensible mistake.
The real issue
The real issue in Astoria, as elsewhere, isn’t that unkempt people lacking reliable dwelling places spend time in public spaces. Astoria famously cherishes the gritty along with the pretty. A port town without some component of colorful characters would be poorer for the lack of personality.
The actual issue are people — homeless or not — who flout laws and social norms by relieving themselves in inappropriate places, being obnoxious toward others, allowing their pets to run loose, and engaging in other forms of unsavory behavior. This kind of wrongdoing can make others — residents and tourists alike — feel unsafe or unwelcome. This is unacceptable. Homelessness is not a license for misbehavior.
Astoria police correctly note that they have a broad range of responsibilities. There is always more to do than time and money allow. Without more manpower, something else would have to give. The citizens who came to the City Council requesting more emphasis on this problem reflect a broader consensus, one that a majority of council members agreed to address. With luck, periodic “emphasis patrols” may manage to make a strong enough point to offenders that they must mend their ways or relocate. Otherwise, citizens, downtown businesses and the council will need to find more funds for active enforcement all the time.
It is quite extraordinary that a city the size of Astoria may soon benefit from converting the former Finnish boarding house in Uniontown into a dormitory for homeless people looking to get back on their feet.
Helping Hands, a nonprofit with significant experience in helping people find jobs and housing, has entered a purchase agreement with Northwest Oregon Housing Authority to buy the large yellow house on Marine Drive next door to Motel 6. The facility could provide beds for 60 or 70 people.
Most homeless people aren’t troublemakers, so this housing is unlikely to have a downside for the up and coming Uniontown district. Nor, by itself, is it likely to address problems downtown. But it would go quite a long way toward addressing the growing need for short-term housing for those in the process of recovering from difficult life circumstances. We would all do well to support such an effort.