Members of the Cowlitz County Homeless Task Force said Wednesday they were “blindsided” by the County Commissioner Dennis Weber’s release of their preliminary proposal to allow temporary urban camping on vacant land near the county Hall of Justice.
“(Our proposal) was the early stage of asking the commissioners if this is something we can think about,” Christen Ellis, task force chairwoman, said Wednesday. “We don’t even know if this is a feasible idea or if the county is okay with it. It’s still in the early ‘maybe this is something we can do’ stage.”
Weber responded that he was “disappointed” with the task force’s recommendation and said he steadfastly opposes homeless encampments because they are unsafe and unclean.
“It’s a false promise, and it’s cruel to have the homeless assigned to camps in which they are preyed upon,” Weber said. “We can do better. I expect the task force to do better.”
The idea for a designated “urban camping” area arose last summer as one of many possible temporary solutions to shelter people during extreme weather, said Longview Port Commissioner Jeff Wilson, one of 12 members of the task force.
The task force uses the term “urban camping” as a way to represent a temporary solution, whereas “tent city” implies permanence, Wilson said.
“Any type of the word ‘tent’ is going to draw controversy,” Wilson said. “When those in tents are told, ‘You have to leave,’ the first thing that comes back is, ‘Where do we go? Where can I go?’ We didn’t say urban camping was going to solve anything. We said it’s one of many options we’d like to discuss with the commissioners.”
In addition to temporary solutions, the task force also identified long-term solutions in its 10-year Plan to Address Homelessness, completed in March, Ellis said. But those solutions take time, she said, and they needed to find an immediate solution for cold weather.
The task force asked county officials to make a list of vacant, county-owned properties where temporary tent or car camping could be allowed. Of 14 possible locations, the task force selected two next to the Hall of Justice for their proximity to social services and law enforcement support.
The task force’s preferred location is about 1.5 acres of land south of the Hall of Justice parking area in Longview, directly across the street from the Cowlitz County Jail. It’s located between First Avenue and the Cowlitz River dike and just north of the old Charlie’s Restaurant.
The secondary recommended location is about 15,000 square feet in West Kelso on the west side of First Street between Lincoln and Washington streets.
Increased tension between campers at the Lion’s Shelter at Lake Sacajawea and nearby homeowners last year — including threats of violence on social media — prompted the task force to send the recommendation to the commissioners to generate discussion, Ellis said.
“What this is meant to be is a very temporary, ‘let’s get something done’ solution with greater long-term solutions,” Ellis said. “If we had a fairy wand and could make houses appear, we’d obviously like to do that instead of having folks camping. ... Our main concern as a task force is to make sure there’s no violence against anyone — landowner or urban camper.”
However, the task force was stunned to learn that Weber had sent the proposal to the Kelso City Council for discussion during its meeting Tuesday night without giving the task force a chance to explain or defend the plan, Wilson said.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking the city’s opinion, but … our task force believes we should have been communicated with prior,” he said. “We feel that we’ve been bypassed.”
Weber said he sent the proposal to Kelso because West Kelso is part of his commissioner district.
“I reached out to say ‘Is there support for this on the Kelso council?’ If they were supportive of it, they’re the ones who have to deal with it. The answer came back loud and clear,” Weber said.
Weber said he would like to see support for existing organizations that provide supportive housing, mental health services and accountability for the chronically homeless.
Ellis and Wilson said many members of the volunteer committee are “sad” about the public reaction to the proposal and are close to resigning. Ellis said she reported three people on Wednesday for making threats against her on Facebook that say “we should run you out of town.”
“We are not paid. We do this in our spare time with the goal of helping people, including homeowners at the lake, with the goal of reducing the problem. If we make recommendations and they never go anywhere or aren’t heard, it’s very difficult to continue volunteering.”