On Thursday the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) notified a growing population of people living in cars and RVs at the Mellen Street Park and Ride that they had until the end of the day to leave the lot.
A notice posted by WSDOT that was left on vehicles at the lot stated the facility has a maximum stay of 48 hours and all violators will be subject to removal at the owner’s expense.
“There are no restroom or sanitation facilities on site,” the notice reads. “Any dumping of solid waste on WSDOT property violates state and local law and is strictly prohibited. Violators will be subject to removal and prosecution.”
The decision to clean up any homeless encampment is a balance between the health and safety factors at the site and WSDOT’s resources to clean it up, said WSDOT spokesperson Tamara Greenwell.
According to Greenwell, the Mellen Street Park and Ride reached a point where cleaning it up was necessary for the health and safety of the public. She noted that raw sewage was being illegally dumped at the site.
At the city level, Centralia Mayor Pro-tem Peter Abbarno, who has advocated for the state to take better care of properties like the Mellen Street Park and Ride when the local government has no authority over it, said the property had been an issue for years, but only until this year did it become a “substandard, unregulated RV park.”
“Honestly this is a state-owned property with state rules and regulations that are not being enforced,” Abbarno said. “The city doesn’t have the authority to enforce those rules unless the state allows us to and they’re not. It has become a health, safety, and ecological hazard — not only for the occupants living there because they have no water or sewer but the contaminants are leaching into our aquifer — our drinking water — and there’s a lot of waste on the banks of the river.”
Abbarno, running to represent the 20th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives, recently featured the park and ride in a campaign video.
“The state needs to come up with a solution and it starts with moving the occupants to a more appropriate location and providing them with the services to help get them out of the situation they are in,” Abbarno added.
Centralia Mayor Susan Luond said Thursday that she was not prepared to make a comment on the issue of individuals living at the Mellen Street Park and Ride when asked.
A representative with Community Integrated Health Services was at the encampment at 9:30 a.m. to assist people with a variety of resources like housing, food and medical needs, according to Greenwell.
At the Mellen Street Park and Ride Thursday, several individuals said they understood the WSDOT’s actions, but felt that an appropriate and feasible alternative was not being presented.
Rick Cleaver, who said he had been living in his RV at the park and ride for about a month, understood the WSDOT’s decision to ask everyone to leave, but found it to be very sudden. He said he was notified Thursday and was asked to be gone by the end of the day.
Cleaver said since he had arrived at the park and ride, a lot more people had begun to show up, which he suspects is the reason the WSDOT acted now.
He also believes he knows why more people are settling down at the park and ride: because most places where he could park his RV at an affordable rate have closed down since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.
He added that paying rent as long as it's reasonable was not the issue for him, rather, he simply couldn’t find a place with reasonable rent that was still open.
“I have no clue where I’m going to go,” Cleaver said.
Jodi Hames said she and her boyfriend had arrived at the Mellen Street Park and Ride a little over a week ago. Like Cleaver, she sees where WSDOT is coming from, but also sees why people living at the park and ride might be frustrated.
“This is a park and ride, people aren’t able to use it because they don’t want to leave their vehicle here because they are afraid of that,” Hames said as she pointed at a pile of trash sitting at the entrance of the park and ride. “That’s not right, I see that point.”
But she also sees the side that she and many others at the park and ride are dealing with.
Hames fell on hard times not long ago and didn’t have a place for she and her boyfriend to live. They had bounced around a couple spots before landing at the Mellen Street Park and Ride in their RV.
And also like Cleaver, Hames said she isn’t sure where she is going now, though she thought the 24-hour notice was fair.
“Me personally, I feel there should be somewhere in town that does have overnight staying … it's just that there’s not anywhere for people who don’t have a home to go.”
Calvin Ulner, who has lived at the park and ride since February and has lived in Lewis County for his entire life, felt the timing of the WSDOT’s decision to ask himself and the other park and ride dwellers to leave was particularly unfair.
Ulner is disabled and cannot afford to upgrade his RV to a newer model so RV lots would take him in.
“All the parks will only take an RV that's 10 years old or newer, so where are we supposed to park?” Ulner said, standing behind his 1977 model RV.
He also said that in his previous experiences of getting kicked out of parking lots, someone from social services will come and suggest alternatives that require more money than he has.
“This problem goes so much farther beyond the homelessness issue,” Abbarno said. “Homelessness and poverty is an issue that we need to address for sure. Those folks that are living (at the park and ride) need services and need help. The state is perpetuating that problem by letting them stay in substandard conditions.”