As Longview Homeless Camp Hits Two-Year Bar, Future Still Unclear | Government and politics

There is a lot of disagreement over the future of Longview’s homeless population, but on one point everyone agrees: Tackling the problem wasn’t supposed to take that long.

On December 27, 2019, the city’s homeless residents were transferred to the Alabama Street camp. He was supposed to stay there for 90 days. Then the camp would move to a second temporary location while a joint city and county committee searched for a site for a managed alternative.

COVID-19 and the moratorium on evictions that followed have scrambled those plans. Alabama Street has undergone two major cleanups and one resident rotation, but that remains in effect. The plan to replace it with a hosted campsite run by an on-site social service agency is progressing after months of delay.

Longview homeless camp: a timeline of key moments

The agency, which will be chosen by the city and county in collaboration, will provide services to provide camp residents with the help they need, from permanent housing to drug treatment.

“I don’t know how many people in this population feel close to hope. With a better site, they might see it as a possibility that they can change, ”said Frank Morrison, executive director of Community House on Broadway.

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Julie Dement, 50, has lived at the campsite since it opened and had lived on the streets of Longview for years. Dement said the early days of the camp were chaotic, but the camp has stabilized in recent months. While drug use and crime remain a problem in the camp, Dement felt that the homeless had become the scapegoats for any crime or vandalism in the neighborhood in general.

“I think there is a certain group of people, especially the younger ones, who will do bad things in the area where they know we’re going to be blamed for it,” Dement said.

The city of Longview created the Alabama Street site to keep homeless people away from City Hall and enforce its new ordinance banning camping on the city’s right-of-way during the day. As an unhosted site, the camp has few rules.

The ad hoc committee tasked with finding and recommending alternative locations for a hosted site disbanded in June 2020 after spending several months deadlocked and facing a community retreat against a dozen proposed locations.

About a year ago, Longview City Council and Cowlitz County Commissioners agreed to develop a plan for a hosted and managed site as an alternative to the Alabama Street camp.

County Commissioner Dennis Weber said the county and city need to focus on the type of program the hosted site will offer to eliminate the need for camping, rather than the location of the site. Services should address mental illness, substance use disorders, disabilities and housing preparation, he said.

“Those who are defined as chronically homeless have multiple disabilities. If we don’t address all of these issues, no matter what type of housing, it won’t solve their needs, ”he said.

“Motivated effort” to improve conditions

The campsite was quiet on a gray December morning earlier this week. Just outside the fence, a resident was building a wooden box to cover a generator.

Much of the tents and makeshift structures remained inside the locations designated by the city, although other items spilled onto the ground. The layer of crushed rock added during the emergency clean-up helped to limit the mud.

A makeshift fire pit smokes at the Alabama Street campground on December 15.

Brennen Kauffman

Anthony, who declined to give his last name, has lived at the site for about six months and is part of a self-policing residents’ committee. The committee tries to set rules – such as no stealing or violence – and help other residents, he said.

The committee “can be anyone who wants to improve,” Anthony said. “The police chief worked with us. We are trying to build ourselves.

Longview Police Chief Robert Huhta saw the committee in action in October, the night before a city used an emergency declaration on camp conditions to initiate a cleanup. He said the committee head brought the residents together and then gave the floor to Huhta to explain how the temporary move would work.

Many homeless residents know Huhta by name and have good things to say about him. Huhta said he would visit the camp regularly over the past year to have a few conversations, take a few minutes off his lunch break, or after stopping at nearby gas stations.

He said getting to know the people at the camp was part of his overall community policing goal that started with casual, non-urgent interactions.

“One thing I have found is that most of them are willing to work or help make things better. It just takes a motivated effort or positive encouragement to help clean up, ”Huhta said.

Cleaning of the campsite

An excavator recently loaded trash and leftover garbage from the Alabama Street campground into a 50 cubic meter dumpster.

Brennen Kauffman

Chuck Hendrickson, executive director of Love Overwhelming, said Huhta had been “wonderful” working on the site with social service providers. Love Overwhelming outreach staff visit the site daily to provide food and other essentials, as well as to take people to appointments. The site has allowed service organizations to collaborate better, he said.

“I still see a very big need for it to be hosted, a very big need to be service providers there all the time to get help and support to people, to encourage them to take the next step in recovery and life, ”said Hendrickson.

Future of the hosted site

The city council and the commissioners have discussed together and separately the site plan hosted over the past few months. The county would pay for the site, which would be run by a 24/7 agency. In May, the council agreed to reach an interlocal deal with the county, but commissioners waited for approval for more details on the plan.

Longview Mayor MaryAlice Wallis said the two-year camping saga has been difficult. Wallis had doubts about the hosted camp model, but said it would be “devastating” if county commissioners couldn’t agree on its future.

“We have the largest homeless group of any town in Cowlitz County. The county has the purse strings that control the funds, and it would be a shame if they couldn’t help us with the funds available, ”Wallis said.

County Commissioner Weber said the progress of the hosted site was not a question of resources, as the county can use the revenue from document registration fees that have accrued.

Weber said the plan has been slow to move forward because “it is extremely difficult to reach consensus on this issue.” But he’s optimistic that the Commissioners will soon have a plan they can agree on.

After discussing the draft plan and the agreement with the city, commissioners delayed approval in July because Commissioner Arne Mortensen expressed concern that the documents did not provide sufficient detail of the project. The commissioners asked staff to draft the request for proposals, soliciting outside organizations to apply to operate the site and provide services. The city and county would jointly choose the organization that would run the camp.

The call for proposals will likely be presented to the board of directors in the coming weeks, said Gena James, deputy director of health and social services for the county.

Questions about who will switch to the hosted site

Zac Dreier can have the most accurate accounting for camping. Dreier leads the Community House on Broadway street medicine team, a group of outreach coordinators and nurses who have visited the camp almost weekly since February. The team also kept track of all the interactions they had with people living on Alabama Street.

Dreier said the success of a hosted site would depend on the investment of on-site resources by the rest of the community. It would also depend on how Longview and the county define success.

“If the goal is to clean up all the people, get rid of the drugs and get back into the homes, I have the data showing that not many people are interested in that,” Dreier said.

Only seven people from the camp had stayed at the Community House shelter for some time and only one had gone through the group’s clean and sober relocation process.

Figures like these are frequently cited by officials worried about the number of people who would actually transition to a hosted site. Longview city councilor-elect Spencer Boudreau has been adamantly opposed to the plans for the campsite since the temporary site was first announced and remains critical of the plan.

“It’s important to focus on the numbers, it’s important to focus on other options and comparable operations in other cities where the hosted camps haven’t worked,” Boudreau said.

Boudreau argued the city should push the legislature to fund mental health and addiction treatment beds instead of focusing on housing or campsites.

The idea of ​​a hosted site was a mixed proposition for Dement, a resident of the camp. She said that living the way she did was partly a choice of freedom. Depending on what the site’s provider would demand from residents, she was not happy having to adhere to a strict curfew or not being allowed to drink beer every now and then.

She believed that a hosted site would help weed out some of the worst-behaved residents and limit visits from drug dealers or other troublemakers.

“It’s no different having an owner, if you break it down,” Dement said. “If you live in an apartment complex, you have to follow a certain set of rules. “

“If the goal is to clean up all the people, get rid of the drugs and get into the houses, I have the data showing that not many people are interested in this.”

– Zac Dreier, Community House Manager for the Street Medicine team on Broadway


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