No one expected the task force Astoria created in 2017 would solve homelessness.
Our small town does not hold the secret to a problem overwhelming cities across the West. Housing, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness are some of the many factors behind a surge of people living on the streets.
Mayor Arline LaMear’s idea was to build on the conversations on homelessness that led to portable restrooms near the Astoria Riverwalk to discourage people from urinating and defecating in public.
The task force, under the direction of Mayor Bruce Jones since last year, brings government, business, health care and social service leaders together for valuable discussions that deepen our understanding of the homeless.
But as Katie Frankowicz of The Astorian reported in February, the task force has struggled to find concrete solutions.
A homeless services coordinator could be hired to gather data and respond to gaps in Clatsop County. The position, modeled after an approach that appears to be working in Gresham, could be an important resource.
While we understand the challenges, we would like to see more urgency, not just in Astoria, but across the North Coast.
Homelessness has increased since the task force began work. At the very minimum, the task force should set a goal of reducing the homeless population over the next five years.
We believe several options would help:
• A year-round homeless shelter. One of the many vacant buildings or properties downtown could be converted into a year-round shelter where people could sleep at night.
During the day, the shelter could serve as a drop-in center for meals, showers and laundry and provide links to social services and job opportunities.
The city could partner with a social service agency or a coalition of churches. A shelter could be the focal point for the city’s response to homelessness and could qualify for state money that will likely be available from Salem. It could also replace — or reduce pressure — on the Astoria Warming Center, the emergency shelter at First United Methodist Church during the winter, and Filling Empty Bellies, which offers free lunches at Peoples Park.
• Transitional housing. A bridge is necessary to help homeless people leaving the streets or drug, alcohol or mental health treatment prepare to compete in the rental housing market.
The city should partner with a nonprofit or private developer on low-cost apartments that would provide temporary relief while people gain the confidence and ability to be more independent.
A tiny home village, similar to a project in Eugene, could also work.
• Land use changes. The city should voluntarily embrace the changes the Oregon Legislature made to state law to encourage multifamily housing in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.
Many of the changes are meant for larger cities, but the need in Astoria is undeniable.
The countywide housing study recommended more multifamily rental housing, as well as “missing middle” housing types such as cottage clusters and townhomes.
Making it easier for people with lower and middle incomes to rent or buy could free up low-cost apartments for people on the brink of homelessness.
• Exclusion zones. A clear line should be drawn between compassion and capitulation.
The city should help people who want help, but we should no longer shrug our shoulders and accept chronic bad behavior under the pretext of homelessness.
The City Council should establish exclusion zones for people who repeatedly violate laws ranging from harassment and disorderly conduct to drinking alcohol or using marijuana in public.
We agree with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. Boise in 2019. The court held that criminalizing people who sleep on the streets, when no alternatives are available, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The task force should urge Astoria to create alternatives — a year-round shelter, transitional housing, more apartments — and make measurable progress in reducing homelessness.