Several city councilors believe Astoria could do more to support projects that help the homeless.
During an annual goal-setting session Monday, Councilor Joan Herman and Councilor Roger Rocka urged the council to include a daytime drop-in center for the homeless on a draft list of priorities for the year.
Herman said it would be “significant” for the city to make a statement in support.
After some discussion, the City Council settled on an overarching goal that could include projects like a drop-in center.
The council asked city staff to write a goal to continue to help provide services to the homeless, “including supporting the recommendations of (the mayor’s homelessness solutions task force) and other community efforts to alleviate homelessness.”
The statement, and other goals discussed Monday, will come back for final approval at a future meeting.
The Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition hosted a discussion of the drop-in center idea on Sunday, a presentation Rocka and Herman attended.
Interfaith ministers Nelle Moffett and Rick Bowers have formed a loose group that includes members of a homelessness task force created by former Mayor Arline LaMear and others. They hope to create a facility that would give people a place to rest, socialize and access amenities like showers, but would also connect them with social services, classes and other resources.
Astoria has two makeshift drop-in centers now, Moffett told the audience Sunday.
“One is the library and one is the hospital,” she said, “but other than that, without paying money, there’s not a place for the homeless to be.”
Helping Hands, a nonprofit that offers substance abuse treatment and re-entry programs, opened a new facility in Uniontown last year. There are also clinics, food pantries and employment and mental health services located centrally in Astoria.
“But we’re still lacking resources in this community,” said Alan Evans, executive director of Helping Hands, who presented the drop-in center concept with Moffett and Bowers. “We’re still not in touch with the people who need us the most.”
The group behind the drop-in center proposal has yet to formalize.
Moffett and Bowers hope to create a nonprofit, but still need to figure out details like board members and funding. They have done some research into which commercial zones would allow a facility like a drop-in center, but have not identified property or a building.
For now, they are interested in community feedback, Moffett said.
Being homeless can have a huge impact on a person’s connections to the wider world, William E. Willingham Jr. said on Sunday. He had been homeless in Astoria for several years and benefited from the help of organizations like Filling Empty Bellies, which provides meals and other services. He has since secured housing and is a regular financial donor to Filling Empty Bellies.
“I could have used (a drop-in center) if it was here, but it wasn’t here and I had to do it on my own,” Willingham said. He added, “A drop-in center, we need it. Every community needs it.”
His comments were echoed by other homeless or previously homeless people who attended the presentation.
Vernon Hall, an advocate for the homeless who found housing before a city sweep of homeless camps in the woods on the east end of Astoria last year, has pushed for a drop-in facility for a long time. He encouraged Filling Empty Bellies to try to create a facility last year.
The nonprofit’s efforts stalled, but director Erin Carlsen said she is relieved to see a new group take up the idea.
She and Hall would love to see a center that also employed the people it served so they could gain skills and experience and build their own sense of self-worth and motivation.
A drop-in center was one of the things LaMear had hoped the city could support or help facilitate — a feeling expressed by others on the homelessness solutions task force.
For now, though, the task force has focused on other projects, including a program to help homeless people reconnect with family or friends in other towns and get transportation back home. A subcommittee is also discussing a forgiveness program for people saddled with debt from court fines.
On Monday, Rocka and City Councilor Jessamyn West said a drop-in center may help address other issues downtown. A previous homelessness task force identified a lack of public bathrooms as a major issue, and in recent years police have fielded numerous complaints about public defecation and urination. Merchants have been concerned about people loitering or sleeping in doorways, but a center would give them somewhere to be, West noted.
“We’re good at telling the homeless where they can’t be,” Rocka said, adding, “But we never tell them where they can be.”