Tensions over what Astoria should do about homelessness have intensified in the form of a protest, a viral Facebook post and a misunderstanding.
Dot Olsen launched a small Occupy-style protest on Friday to speak out against the City Council’s vote to prohibit camping in the woods. “We surrender! Where do you want us to go?” a sign at Heritage Square asked.
That same afternoon, Pete Gimre, the owner of Gimre’s Shoe Store downtown, posted an emotional reaction on Facebook to homeless people who soiled his storefront.
Meanwhile, the KOA campground in Warrenton juggled a rash of calls after people misinterpreted a statement by social service agencies and flooded the business with requests for free campsites.
While unrelated, the three incidents underscore the raw nerves behind policy debates in Astoria over homelessness and the impatience of people on all sides of the issue.
Gimre, whose family’s shoe store is among the most iconic businesses downtown, detailed on Facebook how he was called from the “Dancing With the Clatsop Stars” benefit at the Liberty Theatre on Thursday night to deal with people camping outside the 14th Street store and drinking.
“I walk out of the performance to contact the police. Again. Like I’ve done several times in the past for the same reason,” he wrote. “And just like each time in the past we come to work the next morning to witness what needs to be cleaned up.
“This time it wasn’t s--- but piles of piss and cig butts. I’ve had it. I and my employees are sick of this crap.”
Police have received seven calls from Gimre’s since the start of the year. “Not a ton of calls,” Police Chief Geoff Spalding noted.
Still, the chief added, he hears similar concerns frequently and wonders if some store owners have started to accept the homeless as “the way it is” and don’t call the police as often.
When Gimre called last week, the officers who responded talked to five homeless people and asked them to move along.
Other people shared Gimre’s post on Facebook, drawing mixed reaction from the community. Many people wrote that they are compassionate to the plight of the homeless, but sick of the messes people leave behind.
Sarah Lu Heath, executive director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, said the association is concerned for the homeless and the “bad behavior of some individuals” that impacts downtown merchants and locals. With the police, the association developed the Property Watch program, an agreement between individual property owners and the police department that allows officers to intervene as needed when issues arise on private property.
“Bad behavior, vandalism and theft are unacceptable and we continue to be grateful for our partnership with (the police department),” Heath said.
Gimre considers himself compassionate. He has given shoes away to people in need and the business participates in fundraising and provides donations for local service organizations. He has also spoken with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and the Oregon Law Center, groups that have argued against laws on loitering or panhandling.
But Gimre wants Astoria leaders to step up. His daughters feel unsafe on the Astoria Riverwalk and other residents avoid downtown, he said.
“The city needs to take a vocal stance instead of saying, ‘Let’s have another focus group,’” Gimre said. “We’ve reached a boiling point, a tipping point where it can’t get any worse than it is right now.”
Olsen pitched a tent in a corner of Heritage Square next to the American Legion and invited others to join her Friday. The square is already a regular hangout spot for some homeless men and women. Over the next few days, more people joined the camp.
Olsen has attended several city meetings where homelessness has been a topic and would like to see the city use land near Safeway to establish a legal homeless camp. She made her recommendation at the City Council meeting where the “no camping” amendment was approved. City Manager Brett Estes said there were landslide issues with the property.
“These are my demands,” Olsen said on Friday. “(Clatsop Community Action) makes good on their promise to put people up who are cold now. The county abolishes their overnight parking law.”
The Astoria Police Department is aware of the protest and several officers have stopped to talk with them, homeless protesters said on Sunday. About a dozen people sat at the camp in the late morning, some resting in tents. The interactions with police were friendly, they said.
“We wanted to respect their right to protest as long as it’s orderly,” Spalding said. However, “the setting up of tents is a new problem that we will need to address.”
A downtown business and church are supporting the protesters with food, he said.
Clatsop Community Action has seen a lot of walk-ins since the City Council amended the city’s “no camping” rule to include forestland — an omission the councilors believed had been accidental when the rule was written. But, overall, the agency’s volume remains at normal levels.
“It hasn’t increased it,” said Elaine Bruce, the agency’s executive director. “It’s just a different type.”
The city intends to work with social service groups like Clatsop Community Action as it figures out how to address the dozen or more homeless camps in the woods. They don’t just want to displace people, Spalding and Mayor Arline LaMear have said.
Depending on a person’s situation, Clatsop Community Action can begin to figure out what programs they might be eligible for to find help. It is not usually a quick process.
Places like the Astoria Warming Center, which won’t open until mid-November, or Helping Hands, which is in the process of opening a facility in Uniontown, can provide more immediate services but are limited in other ways.
“But we do what we can, certainly, in all cases,” Bruce said.
However, some advocates for the homeless misunderstood what Clatsop Community Action is able to offer.
The nonprofit does not partner with the KOA to place people at the Warrenton campground for free, or otherwise, Bruce clarified. This misinformation, which spread through social media, meant campground employees found themselves fielding numerous phone calls from people asking for a “free site,” said Lee Wheeler, KOA’s manager.
The agency recommends local campgrounds to people who have been camping elsewhere and ask where they can go to camp legally. Sometimes clients show up in an RV asking for places where they can park for the night.
The KOA in Warrenton is one place the agency recommends. Fort Stevens State Park is another. Both offer an array of tent, cabin and RV camping options. But people who follow the agency’s recommendations pay for sites themselves.
In one rare case, the agency was able to use money from its veterans program to pay for a cabin at the KOA for a veteran, something allowed only because the agency had permanent housing lined up. The KOA cabin was a temporary measure until the veteran could get into that housing.
Most programs the agency administers will not allow money to be spent on temporary or short-term housing, since the goal is to put money towards long-term options.
In all these cases, KOA campground managers and state park rangers would not necessarily know if a camper was homeless or just another tourist on vacation unless they asked outright.