About a month ago, John Wedell — one of Astoria’s most well-known homeless residents — packed up his shopping carts and left the section of 11th Street where he was a downtown fixture.
His departure set off a whirlwind of rumors, including one that police had forbidden him from coming downtown. A rumor that he also faced arrest circulated Wednesday on Facebook. People who know him or know of him protested in a comment thread, asking why he was being singled out when many consider him part of the community.
But in fact, police were targeting Wedell’s possessions, spilling out of several shopping carts at the corner of Marine Drive and Second Street where he had moved — not Wedell himself.
Astoria Police Chief Geoff Spalding received complaints from drivers who said the carts blocked their view of oncoming traffic on Marine Drive. Spalding and another officer spoke Tuesday to Wedell about moving his possessions. They gave him 24 hours to clear his stuff away or risk it being seized.
Wedell seemed confused about whether or not he could go downtown and what the 24-hour notice meant — this confusion later morphed into concerns about an impending arrest, leading to the Facebook rumor.
But police had told him Tuesday: “You can go wherever you want in town, John, but you have to move your stuff every 24 hours.”
“If you can pare down your stuff,” they said, “you can probably fly under the radar and we won’t get complaints.”
Wedell was seen loading his possessions into a taxi Wednesday. The corner where he’d spent the recent weeks is now empty.
As for the other rumor: Spalding said Wedell was not told to leave downtown and no business or property owners are pursuing any formal action to make him leave. Wedell can come and go from the area just like any other citizen.
Wedell, who has split his time between Astoria and Forest Grove for decades, said last week that he left the 11th Street area because he was told he couldn’t loiter. He often slept on the street at night, surrounded by his possessions, and then would spend much of the daytime hours on 11th and nearby streets. It is illegal to camp in city limits, but police had not pursued charges against him.
Some businesses want him back.
“He’s like family,” said Vicki McAfee, owner of A Gypsy’s Whimsy on Commercial Street. She would talk to him every day on her way to the shop, and he used to be a regular visitor when she maintained a tea room at a former location.
“He’s welcome here as far as I’m concerned,” said Scott Lee, a Clatsop County commissioner and owner of Bikes & Beyond, who had been trying to get Wedell to move back to 11th Street over the past few days. “He’s welcome to camp in front of the shop.”
Police have fielded approximately 17 calls related to Wedell this year. The calls ranged from a welfare check to complaints that his possessions were clogging up sidewalks or, as on Marine Drive, blocking drivers’ views of traffic. He had been told before that he needed to reduce the amount of stuff he was leaving on the sidewalk, often stacked along one side of Godfather’s Books at the corner of 11th and Commercial.
The complaints about Wedell’s possessions blocking the view of traffic was the first time he or his stuff had risen to the level of a public safety issue, Spalding said.
“Most people know him and like him,” Deputy Chief Eric Halverson said. “We know him and like him, but we have to respond to the complaints.”
Wedell’s move, from 11th Street to a lot near a gas station on Marine Drive and away from the heart of downtown, revealed just how complicated discussions around homelessness can become.
When city and county leaders discuss where to focus resources or add services, the intended targets are usually people who are looking to improve their situations: kick addictions, treat medical and mental health issues, find employment, qualify for housing, reunite with family.
For many, Wedell seems to fall into a different category altogether. He has been here for years. He is recognizable, well-known and beloved by many, but he is also generally uninterested in seeking out services or housing.
At a homelessness solutions task force meeting in Astoria in May, Spalding commented that police officers serve all segments of the population. To Spalding, the question becomes: What side of the community or the problem do we listen to? Do officers simply move Wedell along? Are there more creative solutions?
“I think John is the hardest-to-solve problem,” replied Sarah Lu Heath, executive director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association.
To members of the Astoria Warming Center board, Wedell illustrates the need for a range of solutions across the “continuum of homelessness.” One member commented: “A ‘one solution fits all’ is going to harm John.”
Wedell said last week he intended to return to downtown at some point.
“I may not be sleeping down there, but I’ll go about my daily business,” he said.
Godfather’s Books and the Astoria Coffeehouse and Bistro, on 11th Street, were two of Wedell’s regular spots. He has long been welcome at both, though at times employees have had to remind him to keep his possessions out of the main part of the sidewalk.
This year, Jimbo Defeo, owner of the coffeehouse, also had to ask Wedell not to take over tables in the dining room anymore or bring his stuff inside, but Wedell was still welcome to sit in the lounge area.
Wedell told Defeo he had been sick several times that winter and spring. Defeo said he emailed Wedell’s brothers about Wedell’s health, but never heard back.