ASTORIA, Ore. — Facing a fast rising rate of homelessness, officials and police in Astoria on Friday moved forward with enforcing a new ban on camping in city-owned woods.
“What we're going to do is posting at the places we know there are people at,” said detective Ken Hansen, the police department’s homeless liaison.
Walking from campsite to concealed campsite Friday morning, he carried a stack of bright yellow notices.
Bold, black font toward the top read “24 HOURS NOTICE," but Hansen repeatedly explained the city was taking a slower approach.
“What the notice says is you have 24 hours from the posting of the notice to remove belongings, but we're actually going to give you until [Nov.] 6th at 9 a.m.,” he said to a couple, sitting inside their tent.
Crying, the woman explained they both have jobs but can’t afford housing. She also said she’s afraid to go to nonprofits who offer help.
“They’ll separate me from my boyfriend,” she said. “We’ve been together for three years, and they’ll separate us. I’m not interested unless they have a place we can go together.”
The city’s rationale is rooted in safety. Prior to passing the ban, officials said they feared people living in the woods would be more vulnerable to fires, theft and even violent crime.
Further, they argued first responders would have a hard time finding and helping someone hurt there.
John Nordquist, who’s camped in that forest for months, didn’t want to hear it on Friday.
“It's exile. It's exile of a class of people out of the city, and if we go out to the state lands, out further, there's no water. There's no resources at all. If anything happens out there, there's nothing anybody can do about it,” he said. “We're all shaking inside. I mean, what are we going to do? Where are we going to go?”
That’s a question the community is racing to answer.
Just under the city’s iconic Megler Bridge, construction crews are scrambling to renovate a more than 120-year-old building into Astoria’s first large-scale homeless shelter.
Development director Raven Russell said from their perspective, the crisis is affecting all walks of life.
“Forty-eight percent of the people that we serve have a prior history of drug or alcohol addiction. That other 52 percent, they don't have any of that, and some of them don’t even have mental health issues either,” she said.
The nonprofit Helping Hands bought the facility from the Oregon Housing Authority and plan to have it open and ready to house up to 70 people sometime next week.
Their goal is to have it open by Tuesday, so they can welcome people being forced out of the woods.
If they don’t, Russell said staff have a backup facility to house people temporarily.