On Friday morning, Lewis County’s mayors and county commissioners spent over a third of their monthly meeting discussing the scope of a proposed ordinance that would prohibit the establishment or continuation of homeless encampments on county land.
After it was brought forth to the Board of County Commissioners by Commissioner Sean Swope last week, he presented it to municipal leaders Friday, encouraging them to amend and adopt the draft for their city governments.
“The hope and the goal here is as we’re passing this, that the cities would also pass the same ordinance. So that way we’re not pushing the issue to go from one spot to another, but that we actually address the issues that are taking place throughout our county,” he said.
Should the proposal pass after a scheduled public hearing on Oct. 25 at 10 a.m. in front of the board, it will designate specific county staff and law enforcement to survey encampments on county land, offering notice to residents and eventually helping them leave the property. Depending on the severity of hazard at the site, there may be an expedited process for removals and cleanups of sites while others are meant to be cleared by about 72 hours after initial notice, per the draft ordinance.
Because the county does not currently have transitional housing, the expectation is for folks staying in encampments to either be connected with family members or to visit the night-by-night shelter at the Salvation Army in Centralia while the facility serves that purpose for the county, according to Swope and Public Health and Social Services Director Meja Handlen this week. Therefore, Swope said, his worry is that without similar ordinances on city properties, unhoused people from encampments may move onto city property instead of county.
Due to what he’s previously described as humanitarian and health crises for the public and encampment residents posed by accumulating trash, human waste, fire danger and other risks posed, Swope would rather have folks staying at the shelter. He’s previously called it underutilized. Others, including Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston in the last mayors meeting, have said the facility isn’t suited to be a shelter due to vermin.
The county is moving forward with the establishment of a new night-by-night shelter on Kresky Avenue that is set to be established sometime next year, as previously announced in a news release.
Though Swope didn’t name the article outright, he spoke directly to concerns about the ordinance listed by Cole Meckle, pastor of Gather Church — which provides resources to unhoused people and those struggling with substance abuse — in a story published in Thursday’s edition of The Chronicle.
“A person said something to the effect that it’s inconvenient for a person to go to the night-by-night shelter and then have to leave at 7:30 (a.m.). To which I would say, as adults, we get up in the morning, we get ready, we have our responsibilities, we have to go to our jobs. And we don’t get to just stay at home and work in whatever capacity that we want,” Swope said. “We have to understand that there is responsibility in being a part of a community. The goal and the plan isn't to push people out, but it's to push them towards services, to have a positive impact and change in their lives. And so it isn’t to push people away, but this is to push people up, hopefully.”
The mayors as a group seemed receptive to adopting the policy, with Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson kicking off discussion, noting the policy is a tough decision and thanking the county for taking leadership with it. He harshly criticized policy around homelessness passed in Washington thus far along with the work of Gather Church for unhoused people in the community, calling the church “enabling.”
He added Winlock will be adopting the policy, but his biggest concern at the time is the government's ability to enforce it.
With Winlock covering police duties for Toledo, the Morton-Mossyrock Police Department having just signed on to cover policing Pe Ell and the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and Washington State Patrol having staffing issues, the question was also on top of mind for others in the meeting.
Swope said he’s currently in the process of meeting with law enforcement agencies to discuss this issue, which was echoed by Handlen. She also said she’s in the process of asking the commissioners to support more code enforcement staff at Public Health, which she said hasn’t been expanded “in a long, long time.”
Another concern raised by the mayors was RVs and the high cost of removing them from encampments. Handlen said the county is looking at different funding sources for that purpose, while Swope said state Rep. Peter Abbarno is drafting legislation on that topic he intends to push this upcoming session.
Onalaska citizen and candidate for county commissioner Harry Bhagwandin addressed the costs of enforcing the ordinance Friday, which was among the concerns listed by Meckle earlier this week.
Swope responded that whether funded through grants or county budgets, the costs will come from taxpayers. He said the Department of Ecology has funding opportunities for these kinds of removals and cleanups. While addressing that homelessness is a complicated issue and solving it will require more affordable housing in the area, among other steps, he called waiting for a cost analysis a form of procrastination.
“We have to begin to make one domino fall at a time,” Swope said.