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Plan for homeless campsites worth the cost, officials say

Plan for homeless campsites worth the cost, officials say

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In eight weeks, Timothy Taylor and about 50 others at the temporary Alabama Street homeless campsite will have to move.

Although the site has problems, such as a lack of running water and cold wind off the Columbia River, Taylor said it’s preferable to at least two locations a committee is considering for alternative homeless campsites.

“How am I supposed to get a job if they put us out of town?” he said.

The sites, at Gerhart Gardens Park and a parcel off Ocean Beach Highway in West Longview, would also pose problems for many campers who are old, disabled or struggling with mental illness, he said. Some campers already struggle to get to the site’s portable toilets from their tents, Taylor said.

“It’s hard for them to get around,” he said.

Taylor said there’s not enough awareness that many people with mental illness live at the camp while they’re waiting to get into housing.

As the county pursues a new plan to fund permanent supportive housing, Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber said the encampments are a response to the current crisis. There are “legitimate and fair” reasons to establish multiple sites, he said.

“That’s the one way that we can avoid them being in our playgrounds, at our parks, next to schools or in front of government buildings,” he said. “As long as we’re working on this other approach with supportive housing, those chronically homeless need some assistance.”

Weber is part of the committee considering six publicly-owned parcels for alternative locations to rotate with the Alabama Street site designated by the City of Longview in December. (Check the jump of this story for pictures and evaluations of the sites.)

Sites under consideration are parcels near the Cowlitz County Jail, the Cowlitz Hall of Justice, the farmers market location off Seventh Avenue, near the Coal Creek Boat Launch off Ocean Beach Highway, Gerhart Gardens Park and the corner of Washington Street and Third Avenue.

The committee is also evaluating a parking lot behind the county Health and Human Services Building on Ninth Avenue and a spot north of the Hall of Justice as safe overnight parking sites for people living in their cars or RVs. The sites aren’t well suited for tents, but vehicles could park there overnight without fear of being told to move, said Elaine Placido, community services manager.

County staff chose the potential sites based on location, cost, access to transportation and proximity to schools and residences. The committee narrowed down the list of sites on Jan. 21, and plan to visit them on Feb. 11. There is no set date for its final decision.

The committee plans to identify at least two more locations to develop, but Weber said they haven’t discussed how much it will cost yet. The cost of setting up the Alabama Street site — $40,500 — is a starting point, he said.

Longview spent $30,000 on fencing, $7,150 on a gravel path and $1,430 for signs, and is paying about $1,900 per month for the portable toilets and wash station. The city will also have to replant grass around City Hall where the campers were set up for about three months.

A housing agency in Thurston County delayed preparing a homeless campsite in Lacey because the cost ranged between $635,000 and $1.1 million depending on how much lighting, ADA access, power and other services were developed.

Weber said the cost for the other sites will vary depending on which parcels are chosen because their different sizes and conditions.

Longview City Manager Kurt Sacha said at least three sites are needed so crews can regularly clean them and rehabilitate the ground. Alternating locations also ensures the site doesn’t “burden any specific neighborhood permanently,” he said.

“The goal of the encampments is to create a place of safety for the campers and the community,” Sacha said. “Then once they have a more safe and secure environment, to move forward working with our partners (nonprofits) to help provide services that these individuals may require to help them turn their lives around.”

Chuck Hendrickson, Love Overwhelming executive director, said the site acts as a temporary residence for the campers and makes it easier to find and work with them. He said the organization recently helped three people staying at the Alabama Street site get into housing.

It’s important to have the campsite as well as other housing resources because people experience homeless in different phases, Hendrickson said. Some people may just need to stay in a shelter for a couple of weeks before getting into housing, he said, while others who’ve had more traumatic experiences may need a safe place to camp.

“It’s why we need all the different models and programs in community. They all build off of each other,” he said.

Hendrickson said the city did the best it could in a short amount of time to set up the Alabama Street site, but that the new sites need to be better managed. Campers have told him the site is muddy, the garbage cans are always full and they feel trapped because there is only one entrance and exit, he said.

Businesses and neighbors were upset when the campsite opened because they weren’t given notice, and Hendrickson said that’s something that needs to happen with the new sites.

Sacha said the city and committee have learned lessons from the Alabama Street site. For example, organizers will likely plot out camp spots within the new sites and designate areas for fires, he said.

As the city has designated and paid for the Alabama Street site, the county will likely set up and pay for the next site, he said.

Weber said county document recording fees are available to pay for temporary fencing, portable toilets and other site developments. The committee hasn’t made a decision on what needs to be included at the new sites, he said.

As the committee continues evaluating the potential campsites, the county is also moving forward with plans for housing, Weber said.

The commissioners and staff at a Wednesday workshop discussed putting out a request for proposal for permanent supportive housing, which could include group homes, tiny homes or a scattered site program. Weber said he’s optimistic the program would decrease the need for the campsites.

“We have a lot of people that lose homes for a variety of reasons. Most get assistance, but if coupled with severe mental health or substance use disorders it’s difficult to get into rental situation,” he said. “Temporarily we need the encampments, but I certainly hope it’s going to be temporary ... But at the same time, we have an economy where people lose housing. As long as people are living paycheck to paycheck, we have to be prepared.”

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