Following roughly two hours of public testimony from more than 100 people, the Longview City Council on Thursday unanimously approved an ordinance to restrict daytime camping at City Hall.
However, it did not declare an emergency, as city staff had suggested to deal with the homeless encampment that had taken over the City Hall grounds in recent weeks.
The proposed ordinance would have taken effect immediately. However, following comments from more than 30 citizens, the council voted to change the ordinance to take effect in 30 days to give the city more time to find a proposed alternate location for the dozens of homeless campers.
Speakers echoed common themes. Many said the city shouldn’t give handouts to campers, whereas others said the campers have nowhere else to go. Some suggested alternative housing possibilities, such as tiny homes or temporary shelters in rail cars. Others expressed concern about the impact of the tents on the upcoming holiday parade next month.
“I feel sorry for these people. I know they’re cold. I wouldn’t last one night, but it’s not our responsibility to take care of them,” Longview resident Cris Higgins said.
Teresa Purcell said the most cost-effective way to address homelessness is to provide shelter.
“If you haven’t had a place to rest your head, if you haven’t had a place to take a shower, you’re not going to be somebody in a place to find a job.”
Dorie Cooley said her 13-year-old daughter is afraid to walk to school because of the campers.
“This town used to be a very beautiful town,” she said. “(Now) I’m ashamed to say I live here.”
In response to statements that people are bused into Longview, a currently homeless man said he was born in Longview. His grandfather worked at Weyerhaeuser, he said.
“Human beings need to be treated like human beings,” he said. “You (the council) just sit there and look down your nose at us. You don’t know anything about us.”
Another man said prisoners are treated better than the homeless because they have showers, meals and a roof over their head.
“If we can’t treat everybody at least as well as we treat prisoners, then what are we doing?” he said.
A Longview woman said her community enabled her when she was an addict. Handouts don’t work, she said. It took tough love and the desire to improve her situation, she said.
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The ordinance will amend the city code to prohibit camping in tents or cars and storing personal property such as camp “facilities” or camp “paraphernalia” in any park or publicly owned land, parking lot or other maintained areas between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.
The proposed ordinance “preserves public access” to City Hall and the surrounding areas between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and between 10 p.m. Thursday and 6 a.m. Monday, according to council documents.
The ordinance also lays the groundwork for an alternative camping site, and City Manager Kurt Sacha on Thursday said the city is close to selecting a location. He did not elaborate, but Love Overwhelming board member Shawn Nyman said she’s heard the city is looking at either the old Fisher’s Lane water treatment plant or an empty lot near Alabama Street and Oregon Way.
Councilman Steve Moon said he was “hesitant” to pass the ordinance without an alternative location already selected.
“It worries me that come 30 days, that site may not be ready in time,” Moon said.
Nonetheless, the council unanimously voted in support of the ordinance.
Sacha said he recognizes that the ordinance isn’t perfect, saying such a model doesn’t exist.
“We look to this as a starting point,” Sacha said. “We’ve heard many people testify about hazards associated with camping and the degradation of our community. We also heard about the plight of poor people who don’t have a place to stay in the frigid cold.”
Later in the meeting, long after the council chambers emptied, the council also directed city staff to bring back an ordinance increasing the severe weather threshold to 35 degrees. Currently, temporary shelters can only operate when the city declares a severe weather emergency with temperatures below 32 degrees.
The council also voted to have staff draft a letter to the Cowlitz County Commissioners “demanding cooperation.” The council did not elaborate on what that means, but the letter will come back before members at a future meeting.
Following the meeting, newly elected Longview City Council members Hillary Strobel and Ruth Kendall praised the outcome.
“There was a lot of discussion and they came to a good compromise to push forward with an alternative plan,” said Kendall, who unseated Mayor Don Jensen in this month’s election.
Strobel said 30 days is a “reasonable” amount of time to come up with a solution.
She said she was exited for the community to come up with a “comprehensive” solution to the problem.