Frustration over Longview’s homelessness problem boiled over at the City Council meeting Thursday night, including an outburst from a man who was escorted out.
“You’re stupid. You have no concern about the homeless people,” Roger Merrill shouted at the council, along with some profanities, before Police Chief Jim Duscha ushered him out of council chambers.
The heated exchange arose from a proposed law prohibiting shelters such as tents and tarps at city parks, which the council passed unanimously at the end of the meeting.
“I’m sorry to see that happen,” Mayor Don Jensen said after Merrill left. “A lot of folks are frustrated in this city and we are trying to figure out how to make this work.”
The ordinance outlaws “any obstacle whatsoever” in a city park or playground except for temporary picnic items such as lawn chairs or blankets, or with written permission from the parks director or city manager.
The measure was proposed in response to homeless people setting up tarps and tents underneath the Lions Shelter at Lake Sacajawea throughout the winter.
Local attorney Lisa Waldvogel said she opposed the amendment, citing a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Boise, Idaho, that found that outlawing camping citywide is unconstitutional because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. That case is still moving through the courts.
“If someone is camping outside, likely all their stuff is with them under the tent. As a person living on streets, you know you will be driven off private property, so you go to public property where you will feel safe,” she said.
However, City Attorney James McNamara said Longview’s ordinance is different because it specifically addresses materials attached to city structures, not citywide camping.
Larry Higgins, who lives near the lake, said his grandfather helped create Lake Sacajawea, which was formed out of swampy Fowler’s Slough at the time of the city’s founding.
“I’m sick of seeing it thrashed,” he said. “It’s a disgraceful thing. Get the tarps down. Make it nice again.”
Jack Hansen, a landlord liaison with Lower Columbia CAP, said he opposed the amendment because the most effective solution for homelessness is housing first. (He said he was not at the council meeting on behalf of CAP.)
“These ordinances are going to bury people that already have a huge mountain ahead of them. To be honest, not doing anything puts all the pressure on your community and the good people of Longview. And it puts a lot of pressure on law enforcement,” Hansen said.
Hansen then had an increasingly intense exchange with councilmen Scott Vydra and Chet Makinster about the current low housing stock in the city and the merits of housing first.
Councilman Ken Botero said if more jobs were created in the area, instead of large industrial projects being rejected as not green enough, then some of the social problems would sort themselves out.
Reneese Knight told the council that she used to work for Lower Columbia College but was diagnosed with heart failure in 2014 and became homeless.
“I’m not a drug person or an alcoholic. I was chronically ill. I’ve seen what has happened here, and it just breaks my heart,” she said. Love Overwhelming helped her find out about programs, she said, and now she has been in housing for nine months.
She told The Daily News that she feels conflicted about the ordinance amendment because she understands that people need shelter but they also need to clean up after themselves.
“I just hope that we as a city and community can come together and have a resolution to this problem because not everyone is the same out there,” she told the council.
Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Wills said the tarps make it difficult for parks employees to see what is going on in the shelter, which can be a safety hazard. Last month, the city spent $4,000 cleaning up the park.
“What I’m hearing is that people just downright don’t feel safe,” Councilwoman MaryAlice Wallis said. “Ninety-nine percent of the community can’t use the park shelters. … I don’t feel like going to any of those playground structures either … and our bathrooms are destroyed every week. I’d love to spend that $4,000 on other projects for our city.”