WARRENTON — Plans by police to develop a consistent strategy for dealing with a more visible homeless population are on hold for now.
With two retirements and a new opening to fill this summer, the police department needs to focus on hiring officers, Police Chief Mathew Workman said. Due to training requirements, it could be another year or more before the department is fully staffed.
But some city leaders are concerned about what they see as a major change when it comes to the homeless. They are noticing more camps around town and an increase in suspicious activity along river trails, Planning Commissioner Ryan Lampi and Commissioner Christine Bridgens said at the end of a commission meeting Thursday.
Lampi has compassion for people who are homeless, but it is a new situation for the city to navigate, he said.
While Astoria has seen an increase in its year-round homeless population, Warrenton typically only sees transient groups during the summer months. Few people have seemed to stay through the winter.
Unlike Astoria, Warrenton has mostly been able to forgo the kinds of difficult policy discussions over how to provide services that are tied to dealing with a larger homeless population.
In the past three to five years, though, Workman believes the city has seen an increase in the number of people who stay during the warmer months. It was why he and his officers hoped to develop a formal strategy this year for how they address issues like camping and how they refer people to social services.
“Because we want to be consistent with people,” Workman said, adding, “There’s always a small percent that do commit crimes … but over the last couple years we’ve seen everything from people who are homeless as a lifestyle choice to they’re homeless for a reason like they lost a job, or family circumstances.”
Workman believes the homeless population went down with the shift to cold weather this year, but Lampi says Warrenton feels very different from when he was growing up.
He and his young children have frequently run into people who appear to be homeless during walks on trails near Tansy Point. Though he’s not worried for his safety, it has made him hesitant to take his children on the trails because he doesn’t know what they will encounter.
Bridgens described a camp full of trash on Port of Astoria property off Harbor Drive that she and her husband brought to the Port’s attention and helped clean up in the last week. She knows of other camps on property owned by the Nygaard family.
Several businesses have actively cleared brush around buildings in the last year to make the areas less attractive for clandestine camping. In Hammond, Workman said the Point Adams Research Station took down a lot of shrubbery for the same reason.
Last year, police received a number of calls about homeless camps and conducted a major sweep of large encampments in wooded areas not far from the Goodwill parking lot. During a joint meeting between the City Commission and the city’s Park Advisory Board in January, park board members briefly noted their concerns about more visible drug use and homelessness at the Skipanon River Park near downtown.
Meanwhile, the group behind the Warrenton Warming Center has had to shift what it offers in the last year. They are no longer able to provide emergency shelter, according to City Commissioner Rick Newton. Instead, the group has provided lunches at different locations. They plan to hold a lunch at Lighthouse Park at noon this Sunday.
Panhandlers at spots like the intersections near Fred Meyer or Costco remain the more visible signs of Warrenton’s homeless. While they are allowed to be there, police occasionally have to intervene if a person is causing a safety issue by darting between cars or aggressively panhandling.
“It’s hard because I think there are people with legitimate needs,” Workman said, “and there are people who are using this as a part-time job.”