A proposal to use part of the Jefferson County Fair campgrounds as an emergency shelter for eight months — with a dozen “tiny homes” and a dozen RVs — has neighbors who live …
A proposal to use part of the Jefferson County Fair campgrounds as an emergency shelter for eight months — with a dozen “tiny homes” and a dozen RVs — has neighbors who live nearby worried about spillover impacts of drug and alcohol abuse, crime and noise from the homeless who will live there.
The controversy over a proposal to allow the homeless to continue camping at the fairgrounds in Port Townsend has dominated the public comment portion of commissioners’ meetings for weeks.
It started to boil over two weeks ago.
Worries that county commissioners were well on their way to approving a plan for housing the homeless on the county fairgrounds reverberated through the commissioners’ meeting earlier this month.
Commissioners noted they received a barrage of emails from concerned residents who live near the fairgrounds. Some said their neighborhoods were already seeing an uptick in crime and bad behavior by homeless people who are currently camping on the county-owned property.
Commissioners stressed no plans for a homeless shelter have been approved by the county, and officials have repeatedly noted that the Jefferson County Fair Association has control of the property through a contract that runs through December 2022.
Concerns from neighbors near the fairgrounds in Port Townsend has since prompted Bayside Housing (the nonprofit group that had been asked to help explore the idea of using the fairgrounds for a temporary camping shelter) to begin looking for a different site.
County Commissioner David Sullivan, who has been participating in talks between Bayside Housing and the Jefferson County Fair Board, said the nonprofit is looking for a new location for the homeless given the delays in pursuing the fairgrounds proposal.
At last week’s meeting of the Affordable Housing & Homeless Housing Task Force, Sullivan said the Port Townsend City Council and the city’s police department had been getting a lot of feedback from residents near the fairgrounds.
“Petty theft, some drug use, needles around, some other public health hazards created by people’s behavior out there,” Sullivan said.
The fair board, he added, wants to focus on the problems that currently exist.
Last month, housing advocate Barbara Morey asked the county to re-negotiate an emergency subletting of the campground contract with the fairgrounds board to allow the homeless to camp at the fairgrounds from Oct. 1 through May 25.
Morey’s draft fairgrounds plan asked the county to temporarily sublet the management of the fairgrounds campground, and part of an ancillary building, to Bayside Housing for $1. Emergency supported shelter services would include a cluster of 12 to 15 portable tiny shelter houses and other “safe park sites” for people who are living in their vehicles or tents.
Morey’s plan also sought $75,000 in COVID-19 emergency funds that would be paid to Bayside Housing for homeless who were unable or unwilling to stay at the shelter operated by Olycap.
The fairgrounds location was suggested because it is owned by the county and has bathroom/shower facilities for campers, as well as electricity and water at 58 campsites. In her plan, Morey also noted that the campground is “essentially unused during the winter season.”
In an email to county commissioners, Morey noted that allowing Bayside Housing, a nonprofit housing agency that runs the Old Alcohol Plant hotel in Port Hadlock, to lease part of the campgrounds for a wintertime homeless shelter would “create some unanticipated cash flow and provide a great service as a humane act for the good of the community.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Washington earlier this year, the 30-some homeless who had been living in the emergency shelter at the Port Townsend Legion Hall were moved out due to safety concerns.
Olycap received $345,000 in pandemic emergency housing funds, which helped pay for those who had been in the Legion shelter move to the Tides Inn and later, the county fairgrounds. When the campground reopened to tourists in July, the homeless campers at the fairgrounds were asked to move.
Later that month, a complaint was filed on behalf of some of the campers, and the county was told the Washington Attorney General’s Office said the campers could not be evicted from the fairgrounds under the state’s moratorium against evictions if they had been living at the fairgrounds for two weeks or more.
Some of the homeless then returned on their own to the fairgrounds, while those who had been in the Olycap group shelter went back to the Legion Hall.
Sullivan recently met with the fair board with a representative from Bayside Housing, but at the commissioners’ meeting late last month, said that some concerned residents thought the board of commissioners had already approved a plan to use the fairgrounds for the homeless shelter proposal.
That’s not the case, Sullivan told his fellow commissioners at their Aug. 31 meeting, and added that the proposal was being pushed forward without enough involvement by the county or the fair board.
“The proposal that came before the homeless housing task force was done by homeless advocates without input from a lot of others,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan was grateful that the fair board was open to discussions on the idea, but Sullivan also said that the fair association, as a volunteer organization with limited funds, can’t be expected to solve the homeless problem on its own.
Also problematic are the police issues that have arisen from homeless living at the fairgrounds, the county’s responsibilities due to its contractural relationship with the fair association, and questions about evicting homeless campers from the campgrounds during the COVID-19 pandemic
The fair association is one of the few organizations that has offered assistance, Sullivan said, and added they were not being treated respectfully.
“Unfortunately there’s been kind of an aggressive approach to approaching the fairgrounds, with moving people back in, threatening litigation, and trying to force, kind of guilt trip them into helping,” he said. “That’s really quite unfair. They are one of the few organizations that stepped up to help.”
While the proposal looks good on the surface, he said, crucial partners have been left out of the process. Instead of discussions and buy-in that would create a proposal, the opposite has happened.
“It’s an aggressive approach that’s been kind of backwards,” he said.
“By moving people back there this summer, it’s kind of like, OK, we have an occupying force and we’re going to threaten litigation. And do what we say or we’re going to cause trouble,” Sullivan said.
“And that’s not the way you approach working together in a peaceful way.”
County commissioners were bombarded with emails from residents near the fairgrounds after they heard about the emerging plans for an eight-month-long shelter for the homeless on the county-owned property.
“A plan to turn the JeffCo Fairgrounds into a concentrated homeless ‘city’ (with tiny houses, yet) will have a very large impact on all the neighborhoods surrounding the area,” Linda Egan wrote in an email to commissioners.
“It seems you are all saying ‘It’s public land, we need to put these people somewhere, how about the fairgrounds, done deal. We’ve interviewed ‘a few neighbors’ and found no opposition.’ That is simply not an adequate measure of what the great number of residents in the immediate area think about a decision to house the homeless in our back yard,” Egan continued.
Egan, who lives in the Lynnesfield development next to the fairgrounds, called for a town hall on the proposal
“We’ve had an uptick in crime (mainly thefts) but also peepers. When all of the neighbors are formally invited to attend a formal public hearing in person, I’ve no doubt you will discover a lot of NIMBY sentiment.
“Just how many unhoused individuals are we talking about here?” she added. “Would just anyone homeless be allowed to camp there? We are all past familiar with the difficulties that characterize a homeless population: Nothing to do all day, drugs, alcohol, a yearning to get their hands on some money, to feed their dogs, their cell phones, their nicotine and other substance habits.”
Ken and April Speer, North Beach residents, wrote in an email to commissioners that the plan for a homeless shelter at the fairgrounds was moving too fast.
The proposal was not safe for children and families, especially since the fairgrounds border Blue Heron School.
“We have had a significant increase in crime and disturbances where the police have had to intervene since the homeless have been living at the fairgrounds. We are adamantly opposed to your planned proposal,” they wrote.
“Shame on the [Board of County Commissioners] for not getting feedback from those of us who will be impacted the most by your decisions,” they added.
Chris Witkowski, who lives in an apartment building south of the fairgrounds, said his building was separated by a 30-foot-stretch of wild rose bushes and snowberries from the tent camping area.
“All sounds carry up to our building,” Witkowski wrote in an email to commissioners.
“In ‘normal’ years (pre-pandemic) the summer camping scene is a delight. Most people stay for a night or two. People grill, kids play, and often there is great music to be heard during Centrum’s festivals. In short, lots of mellow folks enjoying their stay in Port Townsend. People who respect the campground rules,” he wrote.
“But with the last few months of noise (at any time of day or night), fights, tension, episodes of violence, obvious drug and alcohol usage, pretty much constant swearing (the word ‘[expletive deleted]’ is used more often than any other) we are ready for some peace. We have mostly been subjected to all this from a specific faction of the homeless population.
“I say that because I understand that there are several categories of homeless or unsheltered folks. Those who are truly in need during this time of lost income and need a temporary leg up ... But we are down to the diehards who choose this as a lifestyle. They plan to find ways to take advantage of the system. They admit it and are proud of it. I have heard loud raucous tales of their various stints in jail, how they have ‘beat’ the system.
“They are using drugs and alcohol. I suspect they are dealing. I have seen the classic handoff of small packets through open car windows. I was woken up one night at 3:30 to hear a woman screaming ‘You’re hurting me!’ several times over. First, I wondered if I should call the police, then I thought perhaps it was some unruly sex (we do hear everything!) but when I listened a bit more, I understood it was one of the guys helping her to shoot up. Finally, I heard her chuckle and say, ‘Well, I’ve never used in my thigh before.’”
Eric Twelker, who also lives near the fairgrounds, noted his family has a small farm stand on their property that operates on the honor system.
“While we have sympathy for the plight of at least some the folks now camped there, we believe that this is not a good place for this use,” Twelker wrote.
“In the times the encampment has been on the fairgrounds, we have experienced petty thievery, vandalism and one incident where an apparently deranged man collapsed on our lawn,” he added.
Twelker said the county should look elsewhere for a homeless encampment; a place closer to services and with less residential density.
“Our neighborhood includes at least seven households with young children. These are working families that own their homes and contribute to our community. Their kids enjoy living in a safe neighborhood and riding bikes on the fairgrounds and around the area.”
He added a final note after finishing his letter: “Our farm stand was robbed again this evening — the money can was ripped from the counter and flowers and produced vandalized. We reported this to the police.”
Neighbors near the campgrounds continued their opposition to an extension of the homeless camp at the fairgrounds with commissioners last week.
One resident said when some of the homeless returned to the campgrounds after it reopened, crime and other negative impacts came back, as well.
“New recurring ‘campers’ who have joined these individuals, arrive in vans, and a jeep, some pay, some do not. These individuals are drug dealers, who are supplying this transient drug using population in Jefferson County,”
Helen Wilson wrote in an email to commissioners. “Each week, we are seeing more and more individuals find their way to the campground to squat and do what we have heard them refer to as, ‘gaming the system’ because they can not be evicted or arrested due to the pandemic.”
“As a result of domestic violence calls placed to 911, some individuals have grouped together at one end of the campground and some at the other, with the rest scattered in tents, or in campers that can not be moved,” she added.
Marga Kapka and Hendrik Taatgen, who live near the fairgrounds, wrote: “Neighborhood residents are upset. Renters in the apartments facing the tents, especially those with small children, have described this situation as, ‘a living hell.’ They are afraid to confront the tent people for fear of gun violence.
“Who can they turn to for help? The camping grounds manager cannot help because the problem is too big for one person. Some people have called the police, and say the police response is that they cannot do anything unless a crime has been committed or is in the progress of being committed.
“Our conclusion is that several neighborhoods are being terrorized by a small group of thugs. We have a crisis,” they added. “It’s important to make a distinction between unsheltered people who need help because they have lost their jobs and/or homes, and those for whom homelessness gives a reason to ‘game the system’ (expression laughingly used by a tent dweller as overheard by an apartment resident), break the law, and engage in criminal activity.”
Some said the county should look at HJ Carroll Park in Chimacum as a location for a temporary camping shelter for the homeless.
One resident near the fairgrounds noted the park is a better location because it is is close to the county sheriff’s office for easy surveillance and quick response; near a direct bus line for access to resources and services; and not near homes and schools.
Some view the proposal to let the homeless winter over at the fairgrounds as a non-starter, given the ongoing problems with campers that currently exist.
At Monday’s meeting of the commissioners, Commissioner Greg Brotherton noted he had met with residents near the fairgrounds last week.
Again, worries were raised about safety and crime incidents, as well as increased littering and garbage, which includes hypodermic needles.
“I understand and agree with their concerns. There are impacts that are happening right now in the neighborhood that we need to address,” Brotherton said.
Brotherton said he was surprised at how many homes surround the county-owned property, which sits inside Port Townsend city limits and comes under the jurisdiction of the city’s police department.
“It’s a pretty densely packed neighborhood around there,” he said.
Brotherton said commissioners have heard not only from residents, but guests and visitors to the fairgrounds, as well.
“There are crime impacts ... that are real and happening,” he said.
Brotherton noted that officials are still looking for other potential locations to house the homeless.
“It’s a challenge, obviously,” Brotherton said.