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Astoria city, business leaders to lead community forum on homelessness

UPDATE — KMUN was at the city’s forum on livability and homelessness in Astoria and recorded the event. You can listen by clicking play on the sound file above.

Lorraine Veach recently overheard two women talking about a divisive proposal to build workforce and affordable housing in Astoria’s Heritage Square downtown.

The women were bemoaning the possible loss of the block’s large public parking lot if the housing project moved forward. Vendors with the Astoria Sunday Market use the parking lot to set up booths in the late spring and summer months.

Veach laughed. A parking lot for a market where she can’t afford to buy anything was more important to the women than housing, she concluded.

Veach is homeless. She has been trying to get into housing for the last three years, without any luck.

“I have an income,” she said, referring to social security benefits she receives, “but it’s not enough.”

She believes well-off Astorians could do more to help people like her instead of, she said, “griping and moaning about what a nuisance ‘those people’ are. We’re ‘those people,’ you know.”

But tensions around issues tied to homelessness and the unhoused in Astoria are at an all time high, fueled by visible camping and police calls to the Garden of Surging Waves at Heritage Square, tents clustered around buildings, aggressive behavior by some and trash and belongings stashed in the doorways of downtown businesses.

There are also the groups that congregate outside LiFEBoat Services and the Beacon Clubhouse on Commercial Street. People have videotaped arguments and confrontations in front of the building and some business owners say they regularly deal with harassment.

City leaders are considering a suite of measures to try to curb unwanted and illegal behavior and address other issues downtown. In coming weeks, they plan to consider ordinances for camping and abandoned or dilapidated RVs that double as housing. Tonight, the city and business leaders are facilitating a community discussion about livability issues tied to a large and increasingly visible homeless population downtown.

Astoria Police Chief Geoff Spalding has said many times over the years that a small number of unhoused people cause the bulk of the problems, but opinions are mixed on how the city should respond. Spalding says the city is limited by the law — including a number of new laws — and its own scant resources. He hopes people who attend the forum walk away with a better understanding of these challenges.

Erin Carlsen, director of Beacon Clubhouse, isn’t sure what to expect from tonight’s forum. But she hopes for empathy.

LiFEBoat Services and Beacon Clubhouse offer a daytime drop-in center and provide other services for unhoused people and people transitioning off the streets. The organizations have come under fire since opening in a building downtown last summer. Some people have blamed increased issues with the homeless on the organizations’ move downtown.

Posts have proliferated on Facebook and several people started taking videos of homeless clients outside of LiFEBoat Services. The videos show people being disruptive and unruly — at their worst.

Carlsen says the videos could be helpful if they were being sent to the police department to identify people who should be arrested for violent or abusive behavior. But when the videos are being posted online, without the subject’s knowledge or consent, to prove a point, Carlsen sees only the potential for harm.

“I personally work with a lot of people with mental illness,” she said. “So if they’re having a crisis out there, whether it’s just a breakdown or they’re talking to voices or having an extreme panic attack and that gets recorded and then (people) name-call on Facebook and mock and shame, that’s really hurtful.”

It can re-trigger already severely traumatized people, she said. “People don’t even know the level of trauma that we’re working with daily.”

Monica Gibbs, who was previously a homeless client but now works for LiFEBoat, echoed Carlsen’s comments. She became homeless while escaping an abusive situation. She wishes people understood the impact when videos like the ones on Facebook are posted.

“Not everybody is mentally OK enough to deal with that and it makes people paranoid and makes them act up more,” she said.

“You don’t see the housed community being posted for acting up, and they do,” she added. “It’s very one-sided what people are posting and talking about.”

Carlsen’s partner, Osarch Orak, director of LiFEBoat Services, says there is legitimacy to the community’s complaints, but that the organizations he and Carlsen run are a part of the solution, not the problem.

“I think that there’s legitimacy in the fact that the houseless population that was already here and hanging out in town happens to be congregated in front of our building,” he said. “But we have more control over them that way. And, yes. people can see it there and it’s a thing.”

But he’s not sure it’s a bad thing.

“In a way,” he said, “this is drumming up a conversation that’s needed to be had.”

The Astoria Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce is one of the facilitators for tonight’s forum. Executive Director David Reid hopes for balance.

“The conversation is very different than it was a year ago,” he said. “A year ago the conversation was very much, ‘What do we do for our homeless population?’ And today the conversation is about, ‘What do we do about our homeless population?’”

“I’m hoping that we get somewhere in the middle,” he added, “where we’re both doing something for people and doing something about the problems that we’re seeing.”

Astoria’s businesses have already struggled through several very difficult years under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, Reid noted. The issues they are encountering with some of the city’s unhoused are not helping.

Still, Veach and others who camp downtown are not convinced the city’s various proposals will actually help fix anything.

There are people on the streets, Veach said, who are not interested in respecting others or the community. There are people who, if they face punishment under new city ordinances for their behavior, will claim it’s just a personal attack, a grudge.

Greg Pietarila, a formerly homeless person who is now precariously housed and looking for a more permeant solution, has been paying attention to the city and community discussions for a while now. Though he hopes for solutions, he isn’t sure where things go next.

“I’m flummoxed,” he said, adding, “I was born in this town — not that that brings me up — but I come back to this town and I’m cast out on the street.”

Tonight’s forum will be held at the Liberty Theatre. Admission is free. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the facilitated discussion begins at 6:30. KMUN is covering the event and a recording will be available at later this week.