PENDLETON — At one point about two weeks ago, the Pendleton Police Department identified 22 active or abandoned homeless camps along the Umatilla River.
The increasing visibility of Pendleton’s homeless population has the Pendleton City Council considering a homeless camp of its own.
At a workshop Tuesday, most councilors agreed that Pendleton needed some sort of city-sanctioned homeless camp, but there was no consensus on specifics.
The workshop was a follow-up to an August meeting where the council agreed to ban people from sleeping on public benches or in public buildings.
But the council held off on another recommendation that prohibits camping in public parks, self-imposing a 90-day deadline to find a solution to the camping issue.
Internal discussions over a legal homeless camp has progressed far enough that the city has considered several sites.
City Manager Robb Corbett said staff is looking at three city-owned properties: one of the plots on Southwest Byers Avenue west of the Round-Up Grounds, a property near Airport Park, and a piece of industrial land near the Blue Mountain Community College baseball field.
A volunteer at the Neighbor 2 Neighbor Pendleton Day Center, Councilor Carole Innes said she’s spoken with homeless people who are in favor of the proposal.
“Court decisions seem to say that you cannot ban people from sleeping in a particular place unless you have provided some other place,” she said. “Therefore, we need a designated place.”
Mayor John Turner said he anticipated the homeless camp would have some basic amenities like port-a-potties, a dumpster and a water trailer.
Some councilors questioned some of the logistics of setting up the camp.
Councilor McKennon McDonald asked whether some campers would want to share a space with other homeless, while Councilor Paul Chalmers asked what kind of liability the camp would bring.
In an interview after the meeting, Police Chief Stuart Roberts said he receives angry calls on an almost regular basis about the homeless and requesting the police do something about it.
“It’s almost daily that I’m getting calls about, ‘What are you doing? What’s the city doing? Something has to happen.’ … I just don’t have that control,” he said. “I’ve said that from the start — it’s a social issue. It’s not a police issue. That means that there’s a certain amount of collaboration and investment the entire community has to make to come up with a solution that gets us down the path.”
The nearly two dozen riverside homeless camps identified two weeks ago were discovered after the police department caught dozens of complaints about a homeless camp east of the Main Street Bridge.
Roberts sent an officer to scout the Umatilla River from Interstate 84 to the Pendleton Little League Park. Once all the camps were found, the department cleared them out either by giving the active camps a notice to vacate or summoning Umatilla County Community Corrections to clear out the abandoned camps.
Roberts said he isn’t taking a position on the council’s idea to institute a homeless camp, he just wants to make sure it follows a clear set of rules.
But the camp can’t operate without a location, a subject of debate at the meeting Tuesday.
Councilor Becky Marks didn’t like the idea of the camp at the airport while McDonald didn’t like any of the city’s site proposals.
Corbett, the city manager, said no location would satisfy everyone.
“Wherever you choose to put it, there’s going to be people who don’t like it there,” he said. “I tried to find locations that we own (and) had little or reduced impact on the residents of the community and that were close to services or transportation.”
And depending on the council’s decision, the solution might not even be permanent: The Byers property will eventually need to be vacated as BMCC prepares to use it for its upcoming FARM II facility.
The council did agree that the camp just couldn’t be a city initiative, and that it needed to involve other public agencies and organizations that were involved in solving homelessness.
Turner suggested that there wasn’t a quick fix.
“We have no idea how this is going to work out in the long run,” he said. “No city in America has figured out how to solve this problem. This is a problem you do not solve. You figure out the best way to manage.”
Turner directed a subcommittee of four councilors to meet with Roberts and Corbett and come back to the council with a recommendation in a month.
If the council sticks to its 90-day deadline, it will have an answer for the rise in homeless camping by Nov. 29.