Issues with transients in Astoria are swiftly coming to a head. Often referred to as "the homeless", this may be a misnomer as there is some difference between those who have lost a home and are living on the streets as a necessity rather than by choice and the small population of drifters who for some reason are not drifting. They seem to be staying put.
While there is no accurate accounting, just anecdotally, it appears more transients have found Astoria to be ideal judging by the number of illegal campers, derelict vehicles, sidewalk sleepers, and doorway inhabitants. Those holding up cardboard signs asking for a handout have become a common sight. Police deal with these problems daily when bad actors commit a crime. Trespassing complaints are common. Responding to complaints about aggressive panhandlers and harassment along the Riverwalk seem to be a daily call.
Monday night Community Outreach Coordinator Robin Cusick from the Astoria Armory asked the Astoria City Council for help in finding the Armory broken into at least twice recently and the grounds around the building littered with garbage.
That Cusick would be coming to the city over the issue is somewhat ironic. City Councilor Bruce Jones pointed out that Cusick had worked with groups providing meals for the homeless at the Armory in the recent past. That stopped when the service was overwhelmed by the demand.
Councilor Zetty Nemlowill comments that she certainly understands as she has experienced similar problems at the businesses she is involved with but she admitted, as did most of the council members, she didn't know what to do about it.
Councilor Cindy Price pointed to the number of people sleeping in the alcoves at the derelict Waldorf Hotel next to city hall saying it's beginning to look like a tent city.
It's important to understand that police can only respond when an actual crime is suspected. Transients have the same rights in public spaces as anyone else regardless of how undesirable some people see them. Unless there is an outstanding warrant involved, or a crime is committed police can do little. Even when a transient is arrested and taken to jail it's likely that person will be immediately released due to an ongoing problem with overcrowding the county jail.
The issue is particularly acute in a town that has spent an incredible amount of effort over a period of years to become a tourist destination. Astoria hosted a record number of cruise ship visits this year and traffic on local roads isn't getting lighter with the traditional end of the tourist travel season. People are accustomed to seeing panhandlers but having to walk through a gauntlet of beggars, some of which can be aggressive is not the kind of experience anyone wants to deal with on a carefree holiday.
While providing a hot meal to the homeless has become less available there is still a group planning to operate a warming center this year in the basement at United Methodist Church. Support for that operation is dwindling as the owner of a neighboring apartment building told the council. One of his tenants who had strongly supported the warming center and volunteered there has now withdrawn her support because of the problems transients create.
Mayor LaMear pointed out last night that this is a problem in cities throughout the state as evidenced by the many discussions she had at this year's conference of the League of Oregon Cities last week. She seemed to be lumping the issues of homelessness together when she was speaking and said the solutions would take a lot of money to provide affordable homes.