Astoria Mayor Arline LaMear thinks she is ready to update an ordinance that would make it illegal to camp on city-owned forestland.
The mayor had urged the City Council to hold off on a vote at a meeting last week. She wanted to hear from the homelessness solutions task force she leads with Police Chief Geoff Spalding about ways to humanely address the many homeless people camping in the woods.
When the task force met Monday, they had few if any solutions to offer. But LaMear said afterwards it is clear to her that police need a law on the books that allows them to remove someone from the woods if necessary. A smaller group of task force members plan to discuss how to help homeless people better access resources.
The city prohibits camping on a variety of public lands, including parking lots and parks, but city-owned forestland is not included, an omission city councilors believe was simply an oversight when the rule was written.
This summer, police received numerous complaints about camping and suspicious activity in wooded areas on the east side of Astoria and near Columbia Memorial Hospital. Police later located around a dozen camps, some of them abandoned or filled with trash and others that were well-organized and tidy.
Neither LaMear nor Spalding want to begin moving people from the camps immediately. LaMear feels the city shouldn’t move people “until we have something permanent to provide for them.”
“We need to look at each one of these homeless as individuals and see if they would respond to services,” the mayor said. “There’s the thought that some of them really want to live in the woods and not partake of any kind of social services.”
Jack Fisher is one of the latter. A veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, he grew up in Astoria and has been homeless off and on throughout his life. He has been homeless for the past five years by choice. He told the task force Monday that he is not interested in the trappings of settled life: a house, cars, bills.
“A job is alright, but if you’re paying to live, it’s just not something that I really personally want to do,” he said.
Then there are others, like Kim Hayward. She has a job downtown and is trying to save money to move into housing. The upfront move-in costs many landlords and rental agencies require, such as first and last month’s rent with a security deposit, have been a big barrier.
Even if the City Council passes the updated ordinance at the next council meeting on Monday, Spalding said it is unlikely police will ask anyone to move this winter. He is primarily concerned about how difficult it would be to get into the woods if there were an emergency or criminal issue at the camps, as well as the health and safety hazards due to a buildup of trash and human waste. “There’s just no easy way to get up there,” he said.
People who live in the neighborhood near the wooded areas say camping has escalated in the past three years. Those who attended the task force meeting said they were sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, but police have had to respond to numerous complaints this summer. Some property that neighbors reported stolen, they later found in the woods.
Bill Van Nostran, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, said he was frustrated the task force spent two hours discussing the issue and not coming up with solutions. He added that he attended the meeting ready to share two solutions, though he did not go into further detail.
Others suggested placing dumpsters and portable toilets near the woods to help cut down on the trash and human waste left at camps. But Vernon Hall, who has camped in the woods for several years and is an advocate on behalf of other homeless people, said this is not a solution.
“They’ll get abused,” he said.
A number of people living in the woods are trying to make a difference in their lives, he added. “Then there’s other elements up there. Like you said, a lot of criminal activity going on,” he said.
Still, Hayward noted, anyone can leave behind trash in the woods or be a bad neighbor.
“We get blamed for a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff,” she said. “It’s easy to blame the homeless.”