County and city officials are grappling with how to clear out a years-old Centralia homeless encampment that nearly two dozen residents call home. On Friday, state legislators offered local officials advice ranging from buying the property from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), pressuring WSDOT to take action, and finding a way to “get around the law” that protects homeless individuals from some kinds of sweeps.
“Whatever you do with it, you have to provide a place for these folks to go. Under the current judicial environment, the city’s not going to be allowed to just easily send them down the road,” Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, told local officials at the county’s legislative roundtable Friday.
In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that officials can’t clear out homeless encampments without providing shelter. In Lewis County’s case, a severe lack of housing is coupled with waitlists for emergency shelters. The county’s new nightly shelter closes in March.
But outgoing 20th District Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, offered advice for how to evade some legal protections for homeless individuals.
“What you do is you use the purchase of the property, and the environmental assessment to clear out the people,” DeBolt said. “You’re not really evicting them. You’re doing an environmental cleanup, and they just can’t be on the property while you’re cleaning it up … you can get around the law that way.”
Braun, on the other hand, argued that pushing out the encampment’s residents — some of whom have lived there for up to seven years — would simply cause problems for other cities.
“Centralia sends them to Chehalis, who sends them to rural Lewis County, who sends them to Winlock, who sends them to Longview, and you don’t ever solve the problem,” Braun said.
Instead, he suggested a regional effort to find or create housing, noting that state grants are available to help with such efforts.
“It’s going to take multiple cities and the county coming up with a way to provide housing for these folks,” Braun said. “I think it’s your only way out.”
Others at the meeting expressed frustration that the courts have protected people experiencing homelessness. Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes argued that “being homeless is a defense for committing certain crimes,” and lamented that “every time there’s a legislative fix, there’s a judicial action that unfixes it.”
Although officials differed in their strategies to clear out the encampment, many shared the perception that WSDOT is trying to skirt responsibility for code violations on their property by declaring the land surplus and trying to sell it.
According to county manager Erik Martin, the county issued a notice to WSDOT several months ago regarding code violations, and that “this was the action they took, was to surplus the property.”
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen said buying the two parcels, assessed at about $80,000 total, would be “incredibly ill-advised.” The land has been described as a swamp, and wouldn’t offer much to local governments. But some officials are fearful that someone else could take ownership and make it harder for local officials to clear the encampment.
Earlier this month, WSDOT regional administrator Bart Gernhart told local officials that “we do not have the funding, we do not have the staffing, we do not have the ability to address this situation across the entire region or across the entire state,” citing recent budget cuts and hiring freezes.
But Martin said those recent cuts are “not quite the full story,” and local officials argued that WSDOT has had years to figure something out.
“I don’t know how you can say you don’t have the money when they’ve known that those individuals have been there for at least seven years … and have done absolutely nothing to fix this issue,” said Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza.
Coming into the 2021 legislative session, Walsh and Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, told county officials that they could likely put pressure on WSDOT to take on a bigger role in addressing code violations on their surplus properties.
“I think the best way to do it is to pressure the department with correspondence from the members of the transportation committee,” Walsh said. “It’s an issue with the department of not making a priority of resolving squatters, or whatever you want to call it, on WSDOT property.”
Orcutt concurred, saying that legislators should “kind of hit them where it hurts, and that’s the finances.”
WSDOT has given Lewis County and the city of Centralia the first right of refusal, meaning they can buy the property before the agency solicits other offers. The offer expires after 60 days, and it’s still unclear if either the city or county will purchase the property.
“We’ve got 60 days notice, so we’ve got to work quickly,” County Commissioner Edna Fund said.