WARRENTON — The city is struggling to guard vacant property against homeless camps and illegal activity.
Police recently found private property behind Goodwill in wreckage. Garbage, clothes, used needles and other items are strewn throughout the more than 11 acres.
Around the same time, there were three fires within a 24-hour period at camps on vacant land, including the property behind Goodwill. A man living in a camp on the property was cited for reckless burning.
Clatsop County has also been dealing with a significant amount of debris left over from camps at the North Coast Business Park, which is located next to the private lot behind Goodwill.
County officials say there has been a jump in illegal activity on the property. Since heavy equipment cannot be used on the wetlands to clean up the mess, trash must be picked up by hand.
The cleanup is expected to be costly.
“I don’t know how to resolve it,” Warrenton Police Chief Mathew Workman said. “It’s a very difficult problem from physical logistics to manpower.”
He said police are limited in what they can do. “If we’re citing a homeless person for trespass in a wilderness area where it’s not a person-on-person crime, it’s not something where they’ve hurt or threatened somebody, they’re not going to stay in jail,” he said.
In the example of the man cited for reckless burning behind Goodwill, police say they have had about 15 contacts with him since August for trespass and disorderly conduct.
“It’s not like we are going around trying to find him,” Workman said. “It’s the total opposite — we are not. We are getting calls and he is there.”
He said police have offered to find services for the man, but he refuses the help.
Arrests also come at a cost.
The city pays the Clatsop County Jail $100 per day for booking, $100 for each whole day of confinement and $50 for a partial day of confinement for charges going through Municipal Court. The majority of arrests made by Warrenton police involve people who are booked and released or only spend a day in jail.
“You add it up and it’s for a simple trespass that they’re probably not going to go to court for. A lot of the people we cite don’t show up, and they get found guilty by default,” Workman said. “And they don’t have anything to pay the fine, so it’s an exercise in futility on a lot of this, but what do we do?
“That property owner has a right to keep people off his property and to have people removed from his property.”
He said ”it’s kind of like water. When you’re pushing water out of one area, it goes to another area and we just keep chasing people. It’s the same people over and over that are in different areas of our community.”
Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer said the city does not have the resources to deal with the problem.
“And I don’t think the county has necessarily a coordinated idea of what’s going to work. I think they’re still struggling to piece that together,” he said.
“What I don’t like is creating new bureaucracies that do nothing but go to meetings,” he said. “And I think that is a big tendency of government is to create some liaison or person to be the point person to coordinate — coordinate what? There’s no money to do actually something like that.”
Astoria formed a homelessness solutions task force two years ago to help address the issue. The task force is looking at the idea of a countywide homeless liaison.
Balensifer believes the problem is bigger than the city and the county, and to tackle it will require state action.
“People need to talk to their state legislators and say, ‘Hey, enough is enough. What are you going to do about this?’” the mayor said.