Kelly Smith Johnston Commentary: Efforts to Respond to Homelessness in Centralia are Nuanced


Last week, the publisher of The Chronicle called on the City of Centralia to take action in response to an increase in crime connected to homelessness. I’d like to respond to his concerns and call to action with some information on what we are already doing and plan to do. 

The publisher is correct in noting an increase in crime. Vandalism and property crimes are up 50% from 2020 to 2022, and we’re seeing an increase in disorderly conduct, trespassing, shoplifting and car thefts. I’m concerned, however, that there was an implication that Centralia is not being responsive. That is incorrect. We are actively addressing the concerns in many ways. 

Action 1: Active policing and code enforcement. The publisher highlighted one day’s worth of police activity as an example of the problem. This is also an example of the solution. 

Our police department works hard daily to respond to criminal behavior in our community. I’ve been out with police officers, observing their work and listening to their experiences. They care deeply about this community and want all residents, business owners and visitors to feel safe. 

The activity log is evidence that they are addressing problems and not waiting for them to escalate. Let’s be clear: the people who are on our streets creating problems represent a small but highly problematic percentage of people in our city. Many, many homeless people are working hard to get in a better situation, often working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet. We can’t lump all homeless people together. But for those violating our laws, we can actively address criminal behavior. 

Our code enforcement team works tirelessly. Every day they are addressing code violations (including no camping, which we’ve had in our code long before the county and Chehalis adopted it). I know it is hard to see it, because the law rightfully also protects individual rights and property rights. Most code enforcement is a multi-step process with built in timeframes that make it slow. Our team moves as quickly and swiftly as legally allowed to address problems. 

Action 2: Blakeslee Junction encampment. This area includes a private property owner who lives on the property, WSDOT owned property, railroad-owned property adjacent to it and, until last month, was in the county’s jurisdiction. 

Centralia had no legal authority to take action on this property. We cannot trespass people from a private property unless the owner requests it, and even then, it was in the county’s jurisdiction to take action. Thankfully, there is now an effort to take action here. WSDOT is preparing to sell this property and is seeking help for moving people. It is now within city jurisdiction so we can work with them to address the situation. 

The county’s health department visits weekly to log the situation and make the case for it to be considered a public health hazard, which will allow additional action and support critically necessary reclamation work. The people living there are being offered a multitude of services and options to get into a better situation. I’ve visited twice in the last month and have spoken with people there. I’ve observed our police chief building relationships, offering hope and connecting people with services. 

The county health department director visits regularly and was there once when I was there, helping a family get their vehicle fixed so they could move. Service providers visit on a regular basis to connect people to services and keep them engaged when they initially refuse services. I’ve seen people treated with love, compassion and encouragement. 

Now, some people will not accept the services and will likely be displaced when the property is sold and people are required to move. But that will be their choice, made after months and repeated offers of help. 

Action 3: Funding. There are literally millions of dollars coming into Centralia to address homelessness. Most of these are state dollars or federal dollars administered by the state. 

This money goes to rental assistance, mental health, emergency shelters, substance use disorder and other services. Centralia controls exactly 0% of this money. 

County health is responsible for a large percentage of it, and often, state dollars are granted directly to service providers, so we are trying to get a handle on what is being spent in Centralia and how. 

We are following the money and creating lists of who the funders are, where the money is going and how it is being used. We’ve invited funders to come to town to visit and share with them what is happening and ask them to use their money wisely. 

We’re asking to be involved in funding decisions so we have some local say over what is funded in our community. 

Action 4: Local Partnerships. Centralia has for years carried the burden of providing services for most of the county. I am proud that Centralia is a caring community and has done so much for those in need. At the same time, we can’t continue to have all of the services located here. As more and more people are in need, we need our neighbors to join us. We are working with the county to build a better shelter near Yardbirds, outside of Centralia’s downtown core. 

This site will also be bigger, allowing for more services to be provided in one location. The county recognizes that putting the bulk of services in one city has had negative impacts on Centralia. We welcome neighboring jurisdictions in sharing this effort by providing some services in their local areas as well. 

Any discussion of homelessness and crime is fraught with tension. People are angry and concerned by the uptick in crimes. I am too. I’d love to be able to point the finger and blame someone, some group, some organization and say they’re the reason we have problems. But it isn’t that simple. 

It is easy to blame the “homeless” or the city for these problems or to assume that either nothing is happening or that government authorities are treating needy people as problems to be solved instead of people to be served. 

The answer, as in most things, is more nuanced. Yes, we have serious, urgent issues. Can the city do more? We are learning all the time how to do more and be better. But know that we are working hard on many fronts to address an incredibly difficult and complex challenge. We are absolutely focused on protecting our city and all people in it. 


Kelly Smith Johnston is the mayor of Centralia.