I stumbled on this article from 1930 that shows the scope of Seaside’s homeless problem over time.
An itinerant cook with three children, ages 7, 8 and 11, got off the noon train from Portland on a charity ticket on the impression she was going to be given a job here. But when met by police, she was unable to explain who was expected to employ her.
“She was given food by the Seaside police force, allowed to occupy one of the cells at the police station and was sent to Astoria the next day,” the Signal reported.
Today of course there are no trains — the last passenger train came through in 1952 — but visitors of varying means continue to make their way to the Coast.
Portland’s “Ticket Home” bus program, modeled after a similar program in San Francisco, gives bus, plane or train tickets to people who have places to live in other cities.
A pilot program in May and June 2016 got $30,000 and gave 53 homeless people tickets out of Portland. According to the Portland Housing Bureau, clients in 40 households were assisted with transportation costs to return home, provided with six airplane tickets, 42 bus tickets, and five train tickets.
I’m not suggesting that we ship our homeless problem elsewhere. But there is a problem. The transient population has grown an estimated 19 percent in the past year. There has been a 6 percent increase in housing assistance for children, 18 percent for senior citizens. Helping Hands now sees 190 people a month seeking housing options.
With increased numbers comes some more aggressive visitors, especially around the holidays.
“We see the wave everywhere around the state,” Alan Evans of Helping Hands Re-Entry said at a breakfast meeting of the Seaside Downtown Development Association.
Clatsop County is ranked in the top three of homelessness per capita in the state, he said, and the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.
“We are dealing with much deeper issues,” Evans said. “The steady increase over the last four years is scary.”
As housing becomes scarcer, the problem is going to get worse before gets better, he added. “I think every community struggling with the same thing we are. It’s a very tense conversation.”
City struggles to cope
In Seaside, the problem spills over into our everyday lives. Participants at the downtown association breakfast spoke of aggressive and rude panhandlers who camp out on city streets, block sidewalks and harass passersby.
City Manager Mark Winstanley commented that the public library has been a place where homeless issues are growing, especially as homeless seek a refuge from the area’s wicked winter weather. “This is something they don’t teach you about in library school,” he said.
Ordinances, while in line with those of other cities, are limited.
“We do have an ordinance on the books that talks about begging,” Police Chief Dave Ham said. “But court rulings tell us that we are very limited how we can interact with these folks.”
Anything that is open is city-owned and open to the public provides a “pretty wide berth” for interpretation, Ham said.
Darren Gooch of the Bob Chisholm Community Center said people — not just the homeless — come into the center looking for a place to sit or talk on their cell phones or use the center’s courtesy phones.
“We are dealing with issues now that we never dealt with in the past,” Gooch said. “For some people, ‘community center’ is a buzz word for something for free.”
While the homeless may find temporary shelter at Helping Hands or through other charitable groups, there are few options for managing the activities of aggressive panhandlers.
Loitering around an ATM machine is enforceable, Ham said. But laws are more difficult for those holding signs saying “God bless.”
“You can’t say someone ‘looks like a doper,’” Ham said. “You’re not going to be able to pick and choose which one is going to be OK.”
When incidents are reported, complainants are asked to serve as witnesses.
“And the answer often is, ‘I’m not going to get involved in this,” Winstanley said. “And that’s very frustrating for police officers. They want to be able to do something.”
Police don’t have the resources or justification to jail offenders, Ham said, and citations are often ignored. “If they do appear the judge will say you are fined $150, which they do not have the ability to pay. So the cycle continues.”
A designated area for transients — a pocket park was suggested — could be a possibility, Ham said. But rules for the area would be problematic as well.
“Some of these people come with a lot of gear,” Ham said. “You could say you can have a acoustic guitar you can’t get real loud, but if you’re coming in with five different duffel bags and leaning against the wall and people trip over them that’s not really great.”
The communities successful in this issue right now are those where everyone works collaboratively, Evans said.
Town hall discussion?
Winstanley said the solution could be simple — don’t give handouts.
“If panhandlers see an opportunity to make money, they will stay,” Winstanley said. “One of the reasons they are there is because they are making, and in their business, they are making good money.”
Another proposed solution is a free permit for those coming to Seaside, to be administered at city hall, enabling officials to track transients.
But the permit process would have “some challenges,” not least of which, constitutionality and the right to assemble. “You have the right to be in public places,” Ham said.
A downtown association committee will seek a solution, possibly in a town hall discussion.
“This is a community discussion, not just a downtown discussion,” said the association’s director, Sarah Dailey. “We want to work with the Seaside Police Department, the city and the businesses to find a solution that works for everybody.”
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.