A newly formed task force hopes to pick up where a similar group left off investigating issues around homelessness in Astoria.
A meeting Thursday morning was intended to lay the groundwork for how the task force defines homelessness, as well as outline some of the concerns and issues specific to Astoria but also the broader North Coast region.
“(Homelessness) is an issue that affects every city in the United States,” said Mayor Arline LaMear, who helped lead the meeting with Interim Police Chief Geoff Spalding. “It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s not just an Astoria problem.”
The previous task force, led by former police chief Brad Johnston, identified a strong need for more public restrooms and established portable restrooms along the Astoria Riverwalk to keep people from defecating or urinating in public areas, city parks or near businesses.
But it was one of the only concrete action items to come out of their discussions. Other recommendations were more vague; many were outside the city’s ability to influence altogether, people said at the time.
“We did a lot of talking, but not a lot of action,” LaMear said Thursday.
Still, she and Spalding hope to replicate one big thing that the first task force accomplished — bring together a wide range of people with a variety of perspectives, services, information, backgrounds and skills.
The people who attended Thursday’s meeting included representatives from downtown businesses, social and human service groups and agencies, homeless shelter and emergency shelter organizers and volunteers, law enforcement, city government, churches and others.
Spalding noted that Astoria residents believe homelessness is a growing problem. In recent years, downtown business owners have filed numerous complaints about property damage and disturbances by homeless people outside their shops.
Sarah Lu Heath, director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, said people tell her they are afraid to walk around the city at night now. The city has blocked off alcoves near City Hall where homeless people were camping at night.
Spalding acknowledged these concerns, but reminded attendees that “homelessness is not a crime.”
The task force and its discussions are not an attack on homelessness or homeless people, he said. Instead, the group is trying to address the “human side” of the issues.
LaMear hopes the discussions will be rooted in the positive goal of “trying to make this as much about bringing these folks back into dignity and purpose in life, because many of them have lost both.”
The group decided to name itself the Homelessness Solutions Task Force and to follow a broad definition of homelessness developed in Beaverton. It defines homeless individuals and families as people who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night time residence,” and includes people who may be living in places like motels or campgrounds, shelters or cars, or abandoned buildings or who might be staying with friends, doubling up or sharing housing.
Alan Evans, founder of the Helping Hands Re-entry Outreach Centers, thinks one of the biggest challenges the group will face will be educating the community on the depth and complexity of the issues around homelessness.
“Because that’s where we’re falling short,” he said, adding later, “I think that education is going to be the key here and all of us are being educated.”
LaMear and Spalding plan to hold monthly task force meetings starting in January.