EAST WENATCHEE — Douglas County employees are removing homeless camps along the Columbia River in an operation that began early last week and is to continue Monday.
Workers on Thursday collected dozens of large plastic bags filled with the contents and debris of several homeless encampments that the employees were clearing away, said Becci Piepel, Douglas County Solid Waste director.
The agency spent Tuesday and Thursday cleaning up the encampments and removed about 1,000 pounds of material on Thursday. The agency leaves notices 72 hours before they start removing belongings from the encampments. They will go back again on Monday.
There are about 15 known camps between George Sellar and Kirby Billingsley Hydro Park, Piepel said. The number of encampments does appear to be on the rise.
During the middle of a pandemic is bad timing to be doing this type of work, said Laurel Turner, Women’s Resource Center executive director. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends government agencies not remove homeless encampments right now to prevent those groups from moving into the general population.
“And we have no idea if they are COVID-positive,” Turner said. “They are less likely to have been diagnosed or treated.”
In addition, the number of shelters and shelter resources at this time is reduced, she said. Powerhouse Ministries, which operates a day shelter in East Wenatchee, is closed. The Bruce Transitional Housing is at about half capacity, about 30 people, and isn’t accepting new applicants at this time.
“But again, at the end of the day, where do they go?” Turner asked. “Shelters are closed down, the ones that are open are just taking on everyone in the system, so they are overwhelmed.”
She understands that the encampments are an eyesore and some occupants leave dangerous items behind that the public can encounter, she said. But it doesn’t make sense to remove people without a solution of where they will go.
“I think we have a moral obligation to make sure they’re okay,” Turner said. “Just because someone is not willing to come in or get help getting housed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do things to help them.”
The encampments, however, are illegal and Douglas County can’t give the residents there permission to remain, Douglas County Commissioner Dan Sutton said. Homeless people should use the resources and shelters in Wenatchee, which are also safer for them.
“What is safer: Camping in an unauthorized camp along the river where there are not sanitary facilities or using the various shelters and venues that we have here that are considerably safer, have healthy food supplies, have the ability to keep themselves hygienically clean?” Sutton asked.
As for where in Douglas County it would be legal for those individuals to camp, the commissioners have not considered that situation, he said.
He is aware that the shelter resources in Chelan and Douglas are limited, Sutton said. It is an ongoing issue that both counties have continued to try and fix.
“These topics are always there but it comes down to resources,” he said. “Do we have the property, do we have the buildings, do we have the funding? Whether we like that answer or not it is real.”
He realizes that right now more people may become homeless due to the economic decline from COVID-19, Sutton said. The Douglas County Commission in the near future may need to make a change to its policies based on that reality.
“Will there come a point when our philosophy changes?” Sutton asked. “It is very possible.”
Photo Editor Don Seabrook contributed to this report.