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Unloading belongings

Community volunteers help unload the belongings of a homeless individual onto the temporary campsite at Oregon Way and Alabama Street in Longview on Dec. 27.

As Longview City Manager Kurt Sacha put it, “there is no perfect site” for a new temporary camping site for the homeless population in Cowlitz County, but a committee Tuesday started developing a list of potential locations.

Several possibilities were floated Tuesday, including the Cowlitz County fairgrounds, the old West Longview sewage treatment lagoons and a parcel near the Cowlitz County Jail. However, the “Ad hoc” committee formed to make a recommendation did not choose a site at its first meeting.

At the very least, a government-established site should include disabled access, trash handling and collection, toilets and hand-washing facilities, security and oversight and rules about pets, Cowlitz County Community Services director Elaine Placido said. Committee members brought up other needs, such as laundry and access to fresh water.

Cowlitz County staff will now develop a summary of these criteria and a handful of possible locations for the next meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 16, Chief of Staff Axel Swanson said.

“If the community and the committee will bear with us, I think we’ll take a shot at putting some sites that we’ve heard and some other ones up there ... (and) you’ll have some criteria to look at,” Swanson said.

The committee is made up of Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber; Longview and Kelso city managers Kurt Sacha and Andrew Hamilton; and Longview and Kelso council members Ruth Kendall and Lisa Alexander.

The committee also discussed other considerations, such as zoning laws, safety, cost, and proximity to schools and neighborhoods.

Questions abounded: How would people be encouraged to camp at the site and not elsewhere? Should there be multiple rotating sites or a single one? And would creating the camp or camps encourage more people to come?

Alexander asked Sacha how officials would ensure the site helps local homeless and not campers coming in from out-of-town. There is no one checking people in or verifying where they’re from at the camp, Sacha answered, but it’s a topic they’re looking into.

There are approximately 50 people camping at a site the city of Longview designated near the city shop near the corner of Alabama Street and Oregon Way. They were previously camping in front of Longview City Hall but were forced to move when a new city ordinance regulating camping in city rights of way took effect on Dec. 27.

“While it’s not an ideal site, (that site) is a far better location for the community, for the unhoused and I think for everyone, as opposed to City Hall,” Sacha said. “It seems to be, knock on wood, working fairly well thus far. … But again, that’s a very temporary housing in nature.”

The Alabama Street camp is intended to last 90 days and be available through March 30, Sacha said. Rotating campers to a new site or sites will allow officials to clean up, and Sacha said he’d ideally like to see three or more sites in place to make that process easier.

The cost to date of running that encampment is under $40,000, Sacha said, and “the lion’s share” of those costs was to put up a $30,000 fence.

About $5 million is spent each year dealing with homelessness in Cowlitz County, Weber said. About 60% comes from government grants while the rest comes from private contributions.

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