City eyes homeless mitigation camp
Cities have found some success with idea
December 1, 2022
Establishing a mitigation site for a year where homeless people could erect tents would cost the City of Shelton about $35,000, while employing staff to oversee the encampment at night would cost about $100,000.
The Shelton City Council discussed and ranked seven recommendations by its homelessness task force Nov. 22 at a study session at the Shelton Civic Center.
“I’m hearing the mitigation site is the number one thing we should be working on,” said City Manager Jeff Niten.
“I think a mitigation site is the most important start,” Mayor Eric Onisko said. He added, “I think we should start a mitigation site as soon as possible and see how many people actually move from the parks to the mitigation site.”
No site has been selected, and no money has been budgeted for it.
The city established the homelessness task force in June amid complaints by downtown residents, visitors and business owners about trash, vandalism, open drug use, and public urination and defecation by people living on the downtown streets.
On Oct. 11, the homelessness task force presented seven recommendations to the city council. One of the short-term goals is to establish the mitigation site, a legal tent encampment, for homeless people for one year. Another short-term goal is for the city to support grant applications for current shelter options, and support grant applications for community partners to provide rapid re-housing.
The task force offered three medium-term recommendations: placing public dashboards on the city website that detail what shelter beds are available; embedding one or two Mason County-focused designated crisis responders with the Shelton Police Department; and providing storage lockers at a mitigation site.
At the Nov. 22 study session, task force chair Melanie Bakala said a majority of the task force members recommended the mitigation site, but not all of them.
Council member James Boad also said he is “adamantly against” establishing such a facility. He said he doesn’t want an encampment where guests are breaking rules.
“It has to be really structured right,” he said. “I don’t want to just fly into it, throw up a chain-link fence, and say, ‘Here’s a new camping spot.’ ”
Other cities have had success with such a facility, and the City of Shelton can study their models, Bakala said.
Ideally, the mitigation site would eventually be developed into a “brick and mortar” shelter, Niten said.
“You don’t want an unhosted mitigation site,” Niten said. “We’ve seen examples of that with the City of Longview, and it turned out extremely poorly and we don’t want to repeat that mistake.”
The council members concurred that the other top priority is embedding one or two Mason County-focused designated crisis responders with the Shelton Police Department. On Monday, the city announced that wish came true after receiving a grant from the Association of Washington Cities and Washington State Heathcare Authority for a pilot program to provide a new designated crisis responder.
Crisis responders are called to evaluate people who are exhibiting signs of behavioral health disorder/substance abuse disorder, which may pose a risk to themselves, others or the property of others, or who are gravely disabled and unable to care for their basic needs. They evaluate people to determine if legal criteria for involuntary behavioral health treatment are met. The city currently calls a crisis responder in Lacey.
The city is already acting on the recommendation to help nonprofits with grant applications, Niten said.
As for the more long-term homelessness solutions, “There are really only two ways to create affordable housing,” Niten said. “One is with new subdivision applications requiring an affordable housing component, but with that, you give a density bonus to create additional lots in the subdivision, but those lots must be affordable.”
The second option is a public/private partnership where the city could sell or lease land to a developer who would provide affordable housing, he said.
Offering storage lockers to homeless people would help address “piles of personal belongings,” some in stolen shopping carts, on downtown Shelton streets, Niten said. The City of Portland spent about $50,000 to create such a facility, and pays about $120,000 annually to staff it from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., he said.
“There’s been a lot of talk about shopping carts and what to do with them,” Bakala said. “(The lockers are) a good first step to that. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a shopping cart ordinance down the line.”
Niten said he heard “no firm direction” from the council members on the storage lockers, and they can perhaps be a component of the mitigation site.