The homeless issue in Clarkston reached a boiling point Tuesday after Mayor Monika Lawrence declared a “civil emergency,” and the council passed an ordinance that makes camping near Walmart on private property illegal.
Although no public comments were allowed at the special meeting, many in the overflow crowd at Clarkston City Hall demanded answers after learning the homeless camp in the port area will be cleared this week and anyone who remains there will be considered a trespasser.
City Administrator Steve Austin addressed the crowd, saying the decision was triggered by the recent discovery that a stretch of right of way at the end of 10th Street is privately owned and not public property.
Unhoused individuals and concerned community members wanted to know where the 75 or more people living at the camp should go. Many people were angered by the city’s latest move.
“It’s horrible,” said Taya Maddan, of Clarkston. “This is so messed up.”
Maps of public spaces in Clarkston and Asotin County were distributed, and Austin said Foster Park will be reopened. People can sleep at the park from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., according to an ordinance adopted at the meeting, but their belongings have to be removed from the site each day.
The latest development will likely shift the camp to familiar territory. The city closed Foster Park, located near several churches and a residential area, for “planned maintenance and winterization” in late October. A report of verbal contact with children playing at Holy Family School was another factor, officials said.
The homeless group, which was much smaller in the fall, then moved to Arnold Park near Grantham Elementary School. Within a few days, the city fenced off that park, and the camp near Walmart was set up on what was considered public property at the time.
A title search last month revealed the maps were incorrect, Austin said, and the stretch between Walmart and the future site of affordable housing is owned by Bill Larson.
Austin said the mistake about ownership was made at the county level. However, the Asotin County assessor strongly objected to the city administrator’s statement after seeing an online Tribune video of the heated discussion.
“Not once has the city of Clarkston reached out to the assessor’s office about the ownership of that land,” Assessor Jenny Rynearson told the Tribune. “The assessor’s office is not in charge of the maps. We make corrections, but the deed is the governing factor of the boundary lines.”
On Friday, the property owner contacted the Clarkston Police Department, saying the camp needs to be cleared because of the liability risks. Once the people are gone, the city will be tasked with restoring the property to an acceptable condition.
During the seven-minute special meeting, the mayor’s declaration of emergency — which gives the city the authority to clear the camp near Walmart — was unanimously approved, along with the ordinance outlining the use of public property for camps.
It’s not against the law to be homeless, and the city can’t legally kick people off public property if no shelter is available. However, the city can restrict camping hours, according to Austin.
“If you have a complaint, get an attorney, and talk with the attorney,” Austin told the group. “There’s a lot of legal aid out there for people. The city has provided a location for the people to sleep.”
“You haven’t provided anything for these people,” a woman said. “There needs to be something for these homeless folks.”
Austin advised the group to talk to other municipalities about the homeless issue. He said the city of Lewiston and Asotin County haven’t participated in recent meetings at Quality Behavioral Health about the camp, and the burden has fallen on Clarkston.
Others said the city can’t just make the homeless problem go away. “You guys messed up and lied to us,” a man said.
“Who put them on that property?” said Nick Hasselstrom, pastor of Cross Tied Ministries. “Who put them there? Come on.”
Notices of trespass will be handed out at the site as early as today, Austin said. Clarkston police plan to inform everyone living at the camp about the new rules prior to any enforcement.
Austin said people who refuse to leave the camp after being trespassed can be arrested. “We’ll just wait and see what happens,” he said.
“We can do better as a city for the homeless,” a man said. “We really can.”