The Port of Brookings Harbor meeting Tuesday erupted into a shouting match about homeless people camping at the port before some in the audience stormed out in protest.
Emotions about the homeless camping at the port had been stewing after a confrontation Saturday between Interim Port Manager Kathy Lindley Hall and former port employee Skylar Windham that was diffused by Sheriff’s Sgt. John Ensley.
Brookings police were called to the Chetco Community Public Library repeatedly during the week as the homeless there improved their tents and camps and patrons became more concerned.
One resident called Thursday to report the campers were drinking from a brown paper bag and requested police escort her and her child into the building.
Another patron who declined to give her name suggested she could come at night and shine her car lights into their tents or give them food that would make them sick — do anything to get rid of them, while talking to a Brookings officer across the street from the library.
Brookings Public Works and Development Director Tony Baron and Police Lt. Donnie Dotson reported homeless camps in city parks and on private land were consuming city resources and money and depriving the city of focus on planned projects.
In Harbor,a group of three homeless men picketed the Harbor Chevron Thursday after management asked them to leave store property.
Chevron Manager Dawna Nelson said she asked the homeless group to leave because they had been using the store bathroom for days, had made a mess, had gone through the store’s garbage and had never purchased an item.
The men paraded up and down U.S. 101 with signs claiming Chevron’s gas was harming vehicles and contaminated with water.
The protesters would not respond to questions about their actions. When asked questions, one of the group signaled for the others not to speak.
Manager Eva Murphy said they were lying about the gas.
Cause and effect
At issue is the legality of moving or punishing the homeless for camping on public property since the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with six homeless people from Boise, Idaho, who sued the city in 2009 over a local ordinance that banned sleeping in public spaces.
According to the court, cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the sidewalks or other public areas if they have nowhere else to go because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional.
Curry County Sheriff John Ward, whose department covers both the port and Harbor, said he was checking with the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association to see what other counties are doing about homelessness in light of the ruling.
Dotson said, “Being homeless is not illegal, and sleeping on public land is not illegal.”
We can only act if the homeless commit a crime, he added, or if they camp on private land.
“The 9th Circuit Court ruling has our hands tied,” Ward said earlier, and added he had forwarded inquiries about the port’s situation to the county counsel to continue developing the county’s stance on homelessness.
County Administrator Clark Schroeder said last week, with the issue arising in multiple areas, he had asked the advice of counsel and he, as well as law enforcement and code enforcement, were waiting to see what can be said or done about people camping on public lands.
County Counsel John Huttl, whose advice would guide the sheriff at the port and in Harbor, said he must deliver his opinion to the board of commissioners and then to the public if so directed.
Huttl is scheduled to deliver his opinion to the county commissioners at their next meeting on Nov. 7.
Martha Rice, legal counsel for the port and the city of Brookings, said the 9th Circuit Court’s decision applies to all states within its jurisdiction, only to public land and allows governing bodies to make reasonable restrictions on sleeping in public areas.
Governments can restrict sleeping, according to Rice, by time, location, manner or in relation to obstruction of pathways.
She said she will work with Brookings and the port to craft ordinances specific to the restrictions the ruling allows, but she emphasized passing ordinances is a time-consuming process.
At the port, an ordinance would have to be written, discussed, and passed at a regular meeting before being read at two more regular meetings and then sit unenforced for a 30-day waiting period.
Rice noted that camping on the boardwalk creates an obstruction and is clearly “not reasonable.”
She said she is communicating with other agencies because “it is important everyone is on the same page.”
The county and cities and ports need to be consistent, she added.
Local homeless advocate Father Bernie Lindley of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings advises creating a safe space for the homeless to camp “a place as desirable as the library or the port,” a place with security and restrooms and garbage service, and his church — as well as others — feed all who come. He proposed dealing with the issue in steps beginning with a safe camping area and moving to a structural shelter and the means to provide services.
Lindley, at a recent homeless forum in Brookings, said he hopes the decision will motivate the Brookings City Council to be more proactive in addressing the issue, perhaps by donating a parcel of land on which people can erect tents or build tiny homes.
“It’s a good day,” he said then. “It’s a better day for folks who are homeless.”
Curry Homeless Coalition Director Beth Barker-Hidalgo, speaking Oct. 18 at the Gold Beach Housing Forum, said the national trend is toward harm-reduction or housing-first models that take the homeless “with all of their baggage” and offer them safe housing before dealing with their personal issues.
At the Brookings forum, she said, “What I know is I’m seeing more new faces — people, families — that have never, ever had to navigate the social service network. It’s overwhelming for people who don’t understand what’s happening and overwhelming for those going through the system.”
Both advocate housing people first and then moving to offer services including mental health, substance abuse, permanent housing and employment.
Audience members at the port’s board meeting Oct. 23 demanded action to remove the homeless man camping near the Chetco Indian Memorial Village at the port before some in the audience stormed out in protest.
The owners of the Bell and Whistle Coffee House, Whale’s Tail Candies and Gifts and Slugs N’ Stones N’ Ice Cream Cones — businesses at the port — all expressed dismay at the situation and decried how homeless people at the port were hurting business, scaring customers and employees and ruining the port for tourists.
The port has no legal means to remove the camper or tent, according to Hall.
Many of those leaving the meeting had supported former port employee Skylar Windham, who presented a slide-show in an attempt to force the board to fire Hall because of her actions.
Windham’s show centered on his displeasure with the way Hall had handled incidents involving homeless individuals camping on the port’s boardwalk and then her moving the remaining camper to a strip of grass near the Chetco Indian Memorial Village.
He presented a slideshow in which he depicted the port as a machine and described the manager’s job as a cog in that machine designed to enforce port ordinances to keep the machine running. He said not enforcing ordinances was like letting rocks enter the machine and destroy it.
A slide in the presentation accused Hall of being unable to perform her job because she was basing her decisions on her religious beliefs and taking advice about the homeless from her son; Lindley of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
“The town is going through a ‘realization phase,’” Lindley said. “We have homeless people here, and now they don’t have to live in the shadows; they have basic needs. This is a painful phase, but I think we will rally and deal with this.”
Hall should have used port staff to enforce port ordinances forbidding overnight camping outside of prescribed areas even without the support of law enforcement, according to Windham’s presentation.
However, commissioners contended Hall would have put the port at risk of a lawsuit had she done so and emphasized the port does not employ its own peace officers.
Windham concluded his show by asking Hall to resign. She refused.
When Windham asked the board to fire Hall, they refused as well.
Windham later said he would like to see Harbormaster Travis Webster become the port manager.
Lindley said his mother took the camper in her car to look at other locations in the port where he could move so he would be off the boardwalk and away from businesses.
“She was doing what was in the best interest of the port,” he said, “while trying to do what was legally acceptable.”
Hall and the camper — who asked to be called “Ronnie” — agreed on a spot in the grass near the memorial village, however his moving there led to a confrontation between Hall, the camper, a port customer, unidentified bystanders and Windham on Oct. 20.
Windham and Hall said they had already spoken that morning on the boardwalk and Windham had said her job was to remove the camper and not welcome him.
On video from the memorial village, Windham can be heard saying that he was a member of the Tolowa Dee-Ni Nation, that Hall’s placing Ronnie’s tent there “was not going to happen” and that the land was part of “our historical heritage.”
He indicated Ronnie should not be on port property at all and he would refer the issue to tribal courts.
The woman filming could be heard accusing Hall of inviting the homeless to the port.
Windham called on Hall to enforce port rules and ordinances until they were proven “wrong.” Hall ignored the comments and then discussed the incident with Ensley but they could not be heard.
The confrontation was diffused when Ensley intervened and settled the parties, according to Hall.
Port Commissioners Roy Davis and Richard Heap emphasized the port could do nothing until they have firm legal footing and will not act until Rice advises them regarding port ordinances and the ruling of the 9th Circuit Court.
A port employee who physically attempted to move a camper or who touched their belongings could find themselves arrested, according to Rice. In order to remove a person, you have to be a peace officer.
Port Commissioner Ken Range said the port was working with the Oregon Department of Justice, the county district attorney and the sheriff, and said the port cannot ignore their advice.
“We’ll just fire the manager and it will all be good,” Commissioner Richard Heap said sarcastically before becoming serious. “We will consult with the port’s attorney, and when Mr. Windham becomes the port’s attorney we will listen to him.”
At the library Tuesday, one man living in the parking lot attempted to start a fight with patrons in the parking lot and carried the altercation into the library, according to Library Director Julie Retherford. The man was removed from the property by the Brookings police, went on to allegedly steal from the Railroad Deli and was then reported near the Veterans Administration Clinic with his pants down.
Wednesday, the encampment at the library’s north parking lot had expanded to include three RVs, a camping area and a shelter created with tarps tied to the trees along the library’s north sidewalk.
Thursday at the library, other camps along the perimeter of the south parking lot had also expanded — one growing from a tarp and sleeping bag on the ground to a tent on the tarp, tarps in the trees over the tent, a shopping cart beside the tent and a “home sweet home” sign posted nearby.
The library is working with Brookings City Manager Janell Howard and its legal department, according to Retherford.
She said, “We are trying to figure out what we can do without running afoul of the law.”
Library Board Chair Stuart Watkins referred all questions back to Retherford.
She said she had talked to library counsel about the issues, clearly something had to change and the board would be discussing the problems at its next meeting at 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 2, in the large meeting room at the library.
Baron and Dotson cited homeless camps in city parks and on private land, and said private landowners were spending money to clean up camps and were also dealing with criminal activity on their property.
Dotson said officers had been repeatedly called to a camp on private property along the Chetco River for disputes.
“If I have to call the police to remove people from an illegal camp, that takes their time,” Baron said. “And when the city has to assign a work crew to half-day of labor to remove a camp, that’s time taken away from maintaining our parks or beautifying our city.”
Baron said camps on Chetco Point had large amounts of trash and human waste. Multiple areas are reported to have been used as catholes — outdoor toilets where campers had held onto tree branches and defecated over hillsides or into shallow holes.
The homeless in Brookings used to be locals who knew the police and were generally respectful, according to Dotson, but he said the homeless he meets now are generally from out of town and less respectful of police and the town itself.
A man camping on private land near Azalea Park said he had been told to leave by Knight Security and was in the process of cleaning up his camp. The camp included a deck-like structure, what had once been a roof and stacks of his possessions.
Baron, who said he had been a friend of Lindley’s for years, said they disagree on how to handle the situation. He claimed the homeless are drawn here because the town feeds them, has spaces for them to camp and provides a warm climate.
Dotson and Baron showed the Pilot camps on both private and public property as large as a quarter of an acre filled with debris, food garbage, broken bicycles, clothing, sleeping bags, tents, shopping carts, and areas polluted by feces and toilet paper.
In relation to the RVs parking and camping on city property and at the library, Baron asked, “Where are they dumping their black-water, their feces?”
Gold Beach City Council asked its attorney to advise them after they received the ruling, according to City Administrator Jodi Fritts.
She said camping inside the city limits is prohibited, except within legally developed RV parks or campgrounds, and the city doesn’t differentiate on the status of homelessness.
After reading counsel’s advice, Fritts said, “It’s not really going to change much of how we normally conduct business.”
The advice sent to the city noted the city’s practice has never been to cite homeless individuals for sleeping in the rough.
“Our current practice is to ‘move folks along’ when they are sleeping in prohibited areas,” the report reads. “This move-along practice is legally permissible.”
The city can also prohibit sleeping in Buffington Park and South Beach Park (Visitor Center) when the parks are closed (sundown to sunup), according to the document, because all activities are prohibited during these hours so the city is not discriminating against sleepers.
It also states, “Martin v. City of Boise does not require cities to allow homeless to erect tents in public locations. Per the decision, true camping is not necessarily a protected use.”
Reach Boyd C. Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org .