Mayor Erik Larson gated the property and said anyone entering without permission was subject to arrest, including social-service providers.
Aberdeen’s efforts to keep visitors out of a longstanding homeless encampment have drawn a federal lawsuit.
People have lived at Riverfront Camp — formerly known as Hobo Beach — along the Chehalis River for more than a century. The site used to be private property, but the city bought the land in August with plans to clear it out, saying it wasn’t fit for human habitation.
Aberdeen said it would allow residents to remain through the winter if they registered, and more than 100 did. But Mayor Erik Larson also gated the property and said anyone entering without permission was subject to arrest, including social-service providers.
An Episcopal priest, the Rev. Sarah Monroe, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Monday. She said she was denied permission to enter, in violation of her rights to free speech and freedom of religion. Also suing were a Tacoma businessman, Tim Quigg, who has visited friends at the camp weekly for the six years, often bringing firewood and other supplies, and an Aberdeen woman, Apryl Boling, who has relatives there.
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“You can’t stop people from going door to door to talk to people, or tent to tent,” said James Lobsenz, one of their attorneys. “What danger is there to the city of Aberdeen if the Rev. Monroe goes in and talks to people? None.”
Larson said Friday that Aberdeen negotiated the $295,000 purchase of the property in part because the prior owner didn’t have the means to address concerns posed by the camping. He called it a public-safety issue, noting that it’s tough to access the area, which is adjacent to a railroad switching yard. Someone lost their legs when they were struck by a train while trying to cross this year, he said.
Aberdeen has been working to ensure that those at the camp have access to social services including mental-health and substance-abuse treatment as well as alternative-housing options, Larson said.
The lawsuit cited prior cases, including an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling in a case brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses that struck down an Ohio town’s law requiring people to obtain permits before going door-to-door.
Larson said the public-safety concerns make this a different issue.
“The ability of the government to address general public-health and safety concerns is pretty broad,” Larson said.
Some social-services groups, including the nonprofit homeless-assistance group, Revival of Grays Harbor, have been approved to visit the Riverfront Camp.
Quigg and Boling said in court papers they refused to apply for permission to visit the camp. Monroe, who founded a ministry called Chaplains on the Harbor, said she did apply, but was denied by a city official who told her she did not provide enough information about her mission or about when she would visit the camp. She said she responded that she ministers to the spiritual needs of the camp’s residents, and that she never knows when she might be called to visit.
On Oct. 10, she went to the camp to give a sick resident a ride to the hospital. She couldn’t get past the gate in her car, and other residents placed the sick man in a wheelbarrow and hauled him out to her vehicle, she said. “The attempt to isolate people is concerning to me,” she said.
Since the original denial, the mayor said, the city has reached out to Monroe, without success, to urge her to reapply. “We believe her application would be approved,” he said.