At the end of Eckerson Road in Centralia, a homeless encampment hosts nearly two dozen people — some of whom have called it home for five years. Now, state and local officials say it has to go. And although outreach coordinators are hoping to get some residents housed before the eviction, a lack of housing county-wide could mean individuals will be pushed out to other encampments.
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) owns the majority of the land, and wants the encampment gone in order to sell the surplus property. Other county officials cited complaints from neighbors and concerns about how waste and sewage is being managed on-site.
“Whether it’s weeks or months, this has to be addressed … we just can’t allow this,” said Bart Gernhart, a WSDOT regional administrator. “It’s not our primary focus to work with the homeless and house the homeless. We’re just stuck in this dilemma.”
On Tuesday, city, county, and state officials met in a circle outside the camp. Meja Handlen, housing coordinator for Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, said she doesn’t want residents to be surprised down the road when they’re forced to leave. The hope is that public health officials and Gather Church, which regularly provides services and outreach, will be able to help house some folks before the looming eviction.
“People get connected with Gather, and if there’s housing available, that’s fantastic. But we don’t have housing available,” Handlen said.
Addressing the county’s estimated 1 percent vacancy is a county priority, but it’ll be a long process. Some folks in the encampment receive social security checks, but according to Gather Church’s Pastor Cole Meckle, it often isn’t enough to cover rent, and working with landlords to negotiate housing situations for someone who has a criminal record or a past eviction is tough.
As far as shelters go, residents’ best option is the county’s new nightly shelter at the fairgrounds, which operates from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. Other emergency shelters currently have a waitlist. And while Handlen said there’s plenty of empty beds at the nightly shelter, folks can’t bring many belongings, and many would have to leave their pets. Additionally, the county is only operating the shelter until the end of March.
“What do they do at the end of that?” Meckle said. “It’s asking people to give up a lot in order to have something that’s temporary.”
At the meeting, Handlen highlighted the uniqueness of this encampment. It’s not made up of people passing through town — it’s mainly locals, who need to be connected to local services.
“These are our neighbors, and we need to figure something out,” she said. Handlen also noted that the camp is fairly organized. “I know self-policing is an interesting concept for people, but there’s more self-policing here than in other camps.”
Much of the camp’s organization is thanks to Chuck Wiegard, who lives on the far corner of the encampment — a small triangle of land that was sold to Wiegard for a dollar about a year ago.
“I think we’re doing a halfway decent job,” Wiegard said. “Almost everybody’s got a generator for light, and we have wood heat, and the churches and stuff bring us food … some of them are actually pretty comfortable here.”
Wiegard ensures residents pitch in so they can haul waste to the dump. Individuals who prove to be violent, or chronic thieves, Wiegard said, are sent away.
“We keep the violence down pretty good,” Wiegard said, noting that law enforcement have standing permission to come through and search for people with a warrant out for their arrest. “I’m trying to show them we’re not just a homeless camp … we’re just one small community down here.”
Wiegard said most people won’t want to leave. At one point during the meeting, tempers flared. Bill Teitzel, county supervisor and code compliance officer, noted the many code violations and potential environmental hazards at the camp, including concerns about garbage and human waste.
“One of my hats is I’m an enforcement officer. Which means if this doesn’t get resolved, I’m going to put on that hat,” Teitzel said. “I don’t want to do it, but that’s what I’m going to do … we would not allow this in any other part of the county.”
Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Fred Wetzel also said that hundreds of calls are coming in annually regarding “vehicle prowl, disorderly, suspicious person, something of that nature.” Meckle said those calls usually go up this time of year — when the leaves drop, and homelessness is more visible through the trees, complaints generally increase. Handlen said she noticed the trend too.
During the meeting, several people mused with the idea of WSDOT selling the land to a developer to build subsidized housing.
“Would it be fantastic if somebody said ‘I just built a 23-unit apartment and 23 of these people can go in there’? Dang. …But even if someone buys it, you can’t build on it,” Handlen said, noting that the land is meant for water retention.
By the end of the meeting, no formal decisions were made other than an agreement between WSDOT, law enforcement, Gather Church, and county and city officials to “incentivize collaboration,” as Handlen put it, and ensure the encampment doesn’t grow — something Wiegard agreed to, saying 20 people is enough to manage.
Even with the agreement and intensified outreach, the fear now is that residents will simply be displaced. If they scatter, Meckle said, connecting people with services would be even more difficult. Gernhart noted that WSDOT is trying to sell a number of these properties, and has had to displace homeless individuals before.
“What we’ve seen over and over again … all they do is go over to another spot, because they have no place to live,” Gernhart said. “Which isn’t good for them, it’s not good for us, and it’s not good for the next set of neighbors.”
Earlier this year, another encampment — a few RVs at the Park and Ride in Centralia — were evicted, and the same thing happened. Meckle said he even recognized some of those RVs in this encampment.
“I get the concern neighbors have,” he said. “But my goodness, I don’t know where we go from here that’s better, other than continuing to engage people.”