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Friction grows: Transit center makes changes in response to rise in homeless population

Others in Astoria have also been making adjustments as encounters with the homeless increase.
By Jack Heffernan

The Daily Astorian

Published on June 9, 2017 9:31AM

Last changed on June 9, 2017 9:56AM

The Sunset Empire Transit Center has become one of the preferred places to hang out for the local homeless population.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

The Sunset Empire Transit Center has become one of the preferred places to hang out for the local homeless population.

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Authorities have reported a rise in the population of people who stay in the area temporarily without shelter or transportation.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Authorities have reported a rise in the population of people who stay in the area temporarily without shelter or transportation.

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Areas near the Astoria Riverwalk and the transit center are popular with the homeless in summer months.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Areas near the Astoria Riverwalk and the transit center are popular with the homeless in summer months.

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Complaints about noise related to the homeless population in Astoria have also increased in recent months.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Complaints about noise related to the homeless population in Astoria have also increased in recent months.

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Kent Birdeno sat in his office and stared out at one of the sidewalk garbage cans that sport drawings of fish on the side.

“Hardly a day goes by where I don’t see people go pick through it, sometimes eat out of it,” he said.

Birdeno owns Commercial Adjustment Co. on the corner of Ninth Street and Marine Drive, directly across the street from the Sunset Empire Transit Center. He said people who appear to be homeless often gather behind the building and leave their trash, forcing him to pick up cans and bottles on a weekly basis.

“They keep leaving their little nest behind,” he said.

In the near future, Birdeno hopes to install a surveillance system for some peace of mind.

Others in Astoria have also been making adjustments as encounters with the homeless increase. Clatsop Community Action, a nonprofit that helps homeless people find resources such as food and housing, saw a more than 50 percent surge from 2015 to 2016. The statistics covered people who were not living in a residence or homeless shelter, just those who were out on the street.

Much of the friction with the homeless community has stemmed from issues caused by a small but growing number of people who stay in the area on a temporary basis without shelter.

“We have seen a lot of new faces,” Astoria Police Deputy Chief Eric Halverson said. “We’ve always had a transient population, but I don’t remember the numbers being this high.”


‘Nice place’


Astoria’s personality, temperate weather and small population tend to draw temporary crowds of homeless people from out of town, especially during the summer months.

“It’s got its own groove,” said Elaine Bruce, the executive director of Clatsop Community Action. “It’s a nice place to be homeless.”

When people come to town without their own transportation, their first stop is often the transit center. As is the case in many communities, the transit center — remodeled and reopened in 2004 — can become a hub for people without local shelter once they step off the bus.

“We’re one of the favorite hangout spots,” Jeff Hazen, the transit district’s executive director, said. “It was designed as a clean, safe place for families to use. Over time, that increasing transient population has been taking over.”

Hazen has worked for the transit district for about 2 1/2 years after a career in retail. When he first began his new career, he said he developed relationships with homeless people near the center. These people would report to him whenever they witnessed any criminal or unruly behavior. But those people have since moved on, he said.

Now his “gut feeling” is that he will not be able to establish the same rapport with the current crop of homeless. Recent problems at the transit center involve people using bathroom sinks as showers, adults gathering in children’s play areas, lice infestation and loud music. Criminal behavior, such as assault, is also common.

Homeless people with connections to the community have a natural incentive to be good citizens since they were born here, have families and went to school in the area, but simply fell on hard times, Birdeno said. But the changing demographics have brought a host of challenges.

“I think it’s an issue. I don’t know the answer,” Birdeno said. “You move them from one area and they go to another area.”

Hazen began drafting an ordinance several months ago designed to regulate a wide range of behaviors — including body odor and use of shopping carts — at the transit center and on buses. The ordinance was passed unanimously by the transit district’s Board of Commissioners last month.

The transit center’s ordinance will officially take effect June 24, and Hazen plans to hire a private security team to enforce the rules at the beginning.

While the transit center has always had a loose set of guidelines governing conduct, the ordinance gives police more teeth to trespass someone from the property, Hazen said. He compares it to the Astoria Police Department’s Property Watch program downtown. A response to aggressive panhandling, the program encourages businesses to post signs on the front of properties with banned activities so that police can trespass violators after business hours.


Trespass complaints


Astoria Dispatch received more than five times more trespass calls and more than twice the number of abandoned junk calls in 2016 than in 2012. While trespass complaints often center on people camping outside storefronts, police responded multiple times in the past year to people living in recreational vehicles on city streets.

“Where you see the higher numbers of these calls is generally from the transient population,” Halverson said.

Programs and polices such as Property Watch and the transit center ordinance may be steps in addressing the issue. Bruce said she supports both but cautions against stigmatizing homeless people.

Only about 5 percent of the homeless population are causing the problems, she said. The rest are either victims themselves or often shoulder the blame for the minority.

Stereotypes about the homeless are becoming less valid as more families and children struggle to find housing.

“There are different tiers of homelessness,” Bruce said. “Most of them look like you and me.”

As for the small percentage of homeless people that do commit crimes and act unruly, Bruce said, “They’re the ones that make everyone look bad.”



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