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KNKX Connects: A fight over homelessness unfolds on Aberdeen's riverbanks

Will James
The City of Aberdeen has counted more than 100 people living on a property along the Chehalis River.

ABERDEEN, WASH. — More than 100 people were living on a muddy expanse along the Chehalis River in August when leaders in the city of Aberdeen bought the property with the intention of eventually clearing everyone off site.

The action set off a debate over the city's handling of homelessness and the question of who has a right to help ease the crisis. 

After the city purchased the site, officials put up signs warning away trespassers and began requiring anyone venturing into the encampment, including those providing aid to the people living there, to first receive written permission from the city.

Credit Will James / KNKX
A sign warning against trespassing at a homeless encampment in Aberdeen.

Among those denied permits was the Rev. Sarah Monroe, a local Episcopal priest, who said the nature of her work at the encampment did not allow her to adhere to a set schedule of visits, as the city required.

Monroe, through her organization Chaplains on the Harbor, practices "street outreach." She said she makes frequent trips to the encampment to check up on people, and they often call on her for help with little or no notice.

She continued her work after she was denied permission to access the property, but said she now fears arrest when she visits. 

Monroe filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court this month seeking to reverse the city's policy. She argues it interferes with her constitutional right to freedom of religious expression.

"I think my impetus for doing this was the fact that I saw people becoming more and more isolated," Monroe said in an interview.

Credit Will James / KNKX
The Rev. Sarah Monroe with two of her apprentices, James Petersen and Levi Hunt, at the encampment along the Chehalis River.

"Having walked with people for a long time, I know how difficult life already is on the street," she added. "This attempt to isolate people even further was something that I found very disturbing and I felt like it was something that needed to be challenged." 

Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson said the city has a responsibility to regulate who enters the property and coordinate the efforts of people providing aid. The city's aim, he said, is to prevent people like drug dealers from entering the site, as well as people trying to help but unintentionally causing harm. 

"People were going down there and just leaving food for everybody, but if it didn't get taken it would start to rot," he said. "That was a health concern." 

Larson said the encampment is a "nuisance issue" as well as unsafe, because of its proximity to railroad tracks and how hard it is for emergency services to navigate the site. But he said the city doesn't plan on displacing the people living there until it identifies an alternative site for them to go to.

Credit Will James / KNKX
The encampment along the Chehalis River in Aberdeen, flooded after a November storm.

That's proven a challenge, given the city's limited resources, Larson said. He said Aberdeen doesn't currently provide any services for homeless people.

"We need to be focused on how do we get these people off of that property and into a better situation, not how do we make them on the property more serviceable," he said.

KNKX reporter Will James spoke to All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about the debate over access to the encampment and the broader problem of homelessness in Aberdeen. You can listen to that conversation above. 

Credit Will James / KNKX
A memorial for a resident of the homeless encampment.

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