Editor's note: This story has been updated with information from Longview Police on the status of their investigation Tuesday morning.
A group of young men threatened and attacked homeless campers outside of Longview City Hall on Sunday night, leaving the campers shaken and a handful nursing minor injuries, according to a volunteer who witnessed the fight.
Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha said Monday that he had not yet read the reports from the incident, but said there were no arrests stemming from the incident.
The investigation is active, Corporal Jeremy Johnson said Tuesday, and officers are working on interviewing people involved in the incident.
Jennifer Langley, who volunteers at the severe weather shelter at First Christian Church, said she was driving around the Civic Circle at about 10 p.m. when she noticed a large crowd of people that she didn’t recognize outside City Hall.
She said a group of about six to eight young men wielding baseball bats were threatening the homeless people camping outside City Hall.
Langley said she “put herself in the middle” and tried to de-escalate the situation. The group of men said they were upset because one of the campers threw a wrench through a car window and broke their friend’s jaw, she said. Langley said she told them repeatedly to report it to the police.
One of the men threatened to beat her up while brandishing a baseball bat, she said. After telling her ex-husband to call 911, “all hell broke loose,” Langley said. The group of men attacked homeless people standing around Langley, and several people took hits, including another volunteer who came to help break up the fight.
Police arrived soon after and the fighting broke up quickly, she said. The men ran off to three or four trucks parked near the Post Office, Langley said, but police arrived before they could drive away. The group apparently “came with a plan,” she said.
“It was truly the most frightening situation I’ve been a part in,” Langley said. “It seems to be a constant narrative of this city that the unhoused are a danger, but what I witnessed last night ... the violence isn’t coming from them. Citizens are attacking these people that have no place to go in the cold.”
Hollie Hillman, who also volunteers at the shelter, said she came to City Hall after a call from Langley and tried to help break up the argument. She said one of the men punched her in the face. Hillman said she told police she could identify the person who punched her but was told to write a statement the next day.
Longview police did not respond to requests for further comment on the investigation.
People drive by every day and harass campers by honking, yelling at them and even throwing bottles and other items at them, Hillman said. She’s seen fights before, but nothing this “extreme,” she said.
“It’s scary. People are scared,” Hillman said. “They feel worthless. That they’re not even worth the cops taking the time to find out what happened and take the appropriate action.”
Camper Rebecca Michael said she was in a tent on Broadway around the corner from the fight on the 16th Avenue side of the building but said she could hear people getting hit with bats.
“It was bad,” she said. “Why would you want to hurt people that are already hurting?”
Police Corporal Watson, who checked in with the campers outside of City Hall throughout Monday, said he would hate for any citizens to take advantage of vulnerable people. He said the investigation is active and that they want to get the the bottom of it.
Chuck Hendrickson, Love Overwhelming executive director, said negative comments about homeless individuals on Facebook and other social media sites can affect other people that see the posts and “run with it.”
“I don’t think anyone told them directly to do this, but divisiveness really breeds hate,” he said. “This should be about the (homeless) people and making sure they’re taken care of and safe.”
Hendrickson said his biggest concern is safety as the campers move out of the City Hall area when an ordinance banning camping on city right of way during the day goes into effect on Friday.
Campers would still be allowed to set up their tents at City Hall overnight because a federal court has ruled that it is not a crime to sleep in public places. However, under this ruling, if the city establishes a separate camping site, it can ask campers to leave the right of way.
The city is preparing a designated campsite at an empty lot near Alabama Street and Oregon Way, said City Manager Kurt Sacha. The fenced-off site should be ready Friday morning for people to move into, he said. It will include portable toilets, wash stations and garbage service.
Sacha said the site is meant to be temporary, and the city will be working with Cowlitz County and the City of Kelso to provide other campsites to alternate between. The county established an ad hoc committee earlier this month to identify its own campsite. The committee’s first meeting is set for 3 p.m. on Jan. 7, according to a county press release.