Astoria police posted move-out notices Friday at homeless camps in the woods.
People staying in tents and shelters on city property and near Columbia Memorial Hospital will have until Tuesday to clean up their camps and find somewhere else to live.
The action comes after weeks of discussion at the City Council about what to do about the camps. City councilors voted to close a loophole in a “no camping” rule and include city-owned forestland. City leaders had believed forestland was already included in the rule and were surprised to find out otherwise.
But social service advocates and the homeless themselves say they have few options.
John Nordquist, who has been camping in the woods, said Friday he has no idea where he will go, and he is frustrated with the city.
“They’re exiling a class of people from the city,” he said as he watched police officers make their way to his tent. “Because we can’t sleep in town. We can’t sleep in the woods. Where do we go?”
A small protest downtown in October, led by homeless advocates and the homeless, asked the same question.
Nordquist and others in his situation say Astoria police have been respectful and communicative. In a procedure outlined by the City Council and groups that helped the city fine-tune and amend its “no camping” ordinance, Kenny Hansen, the police department’s homeless liaison officer, handed out packets of information about the different resources available to people along with the cleanup notice.
But many in the woods doubt groups like Clatsop Community Action or Helping Hands will be able to get them into housing anytime soon, certainly not in time to comply with the city’s timeline.
Helping Hand’s new re-entry facility in Uniontown is still under construction and participation in its programs comes with restrictions. Clatsop Community Action offers a variety of programs, but it is often a longer-term process to connect people with services and housing, especially when people come in without any sort of documentation or identification.
In some cases, the agency has been able to shelter people very quickly. But more often, it’s a process. “We can’t help people right away.” said Elaine Bruce, the agency’s executive director. “We can’t get them housed today, but we can help them get started on the process.”
For the agency, the key piece is engagement.
“They have to feel comfortable with us,” Bruce said. “A lot of people feel very uncomfortable or feel bad. There’s a lot of embarrassment sometimes with people who are homeless and we want to make them feel OK about seeking services.”
Vernon Hall, an advocate for the homeless who is homeless himself, has been working with Hansen and other police officers to communicate with the homeless people camping in the woods. He watched while Hansen and Nordquist talked Friday.
“I’m glad they’re taking time and talking to people about their needs,” he said. “It’s a hard day.”
Tuesday is a deadline most people probably won’t be able to hit, he said. Recology Western Oregon, which handles trash pickup in Astoria, is donating dumpsters so people can get rid of trash at their sites, but finding housing will remain difficult.
Some people, knowing the police notices were imminent, decided to relocate and set up camp deeper in the woods — something advocates predicted would happen. Others have told Hall they won’t leave their campsites. Others still don’t know what they’re going to do.
Decision to act
In October, Police Chief Geoff Spalding and the City Council did not seem in a hurry to move people out of the woods. Spalding had told a homelessness solutions task force organized by Mayor Arline LaMear that it was unlikely anyone would be asked to move on this winter. But after the City Council amended the “no camping” ordinance and after a meeting with a subcommittee of task force members dedicated to discussing the issue further, police decided to proceed Friday.
Police did have concerns about safety and health hazards in the woods. The camps, located away from roads and street lighting, could be difficult to respond to if there were any kind of emergency.
For now, Spalding plans to only address the roughly one dozen camps identified in September. He and his officers do not plan to go out looking for more camps.
City Councilor Cindy Price volunteered to contact people who receive police notices and ensure they have the information they need. She said she plans to reach out to people on Monday or Tuesday.
“(The homelessness task force) has a well-considered plan being carried out thoughtfully and compassionately by (police),” Price said, “and assistance is available for all posted campers who are willing to accept it.
“It’s time for the city to act and time for campers to make sustainable choices.”
According to a camping operations plan provided by Spalding, police plan to notify social service organizations as campers are given notice. When police return to the camps on Tuesday, they will invite social service partners to assist with cleanup and help remaining campers get in touch with Clatsop Community Action. Police will collect any personal property left at camps and hold it at the department for 30 days.
In the future, the city plans to post “no camping” signs in the forestland areas where camps have been found.