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Transit board denies lease proposal for Aberdeen homeless mitigation site

From left, Ken Mehin, Grays Harbor Transit’s general manager, sits next to County Commissioner Vickie Raines, Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, Commissioner Wes Cormier and Cosmopolis Mayor Frank Chestnut during a Transit board meeting Tuesday.
From left, Ken Mehin, Grays Harbor Transit’s general manager, sits next to County Commissioner Vickie Raines, Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, Commissioner Wes Cormier and Cosmopolis Mayor Frank Chestnut during a Transit board meeting Tuesday. Grays Harbor News Group

The Grays Harbor Transit Board has unanimously denied a lease proposal from the City of Aberdeen to rent a vacant lot next to the downtown bus station and turn it into a homeless mitigation facility.

During the Transit board meeting last week, Cosmopolis Mayor Frank Chestnut made the motion to deny Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson’s proposal: a one-year, $12,000 lease to the Grays Harbor Transit Authority. If it had been approved, the property would have been fenced and covered in gravel as a place for homeless people to live.

People camping elsewhere in Aberdeen, including those at the riverfront, would have been asked to move to the new facility, Larson said in an email. The plan was for it to be similar to facilities in Olympia and Walla Walla, he said.

Details such as how many people it would hold, and whether it would allow for residential structures to be built, were yet to be decided; but the lease proposal states it would have had 24/7 on-site security, with access limited to one gate on H Street.

Chestnut said he opposed the proposal because the Transit Authority already had plans to turn that lot into a turnaround area and expansion of the transit station.

Ken Mehin, general manager of Grays Harbor Transit, said before the meeting that the authority is opposed to the idea: “It’s not a good mix with the passengers.”

Larson said Aberdeen has been looking at other properties for a homeless mitigation site, but he thought the Transit property was preferable. He said the recent push to create a site for homeless people is due in part to the city’s goal of clearing the large encampment along the Chehalis River near downtown.

Grays Harbor County Commissioner Randy Ross acknowledges that something needs to be done about the homeless problem, but he didn’t think the Transit property was right for it.

“The elephant in the room is how do we mitigate the camping site,” Ross said. “I don’t know that’s the best property. I think it comes with more issues than we’re able to deal with here. But there still has to be a place, because I know the City of Aberdeen is under fire to find a way to mitigate around this problem, but I don’t think this is it.”

Larson said the proposal was not related to an ongoing federal lawsuit between the city and 10 plaintiffs, including homeless people and their advocates. But he said because the city does plan to clear the homeless camp, having a mitigation facility would assist with providing a space for the people to go instead of downtown.

The lawsuit argues that the city must provide alternative space for the riverfront homeless people before forcing them off the property. A 30-day stay, or hold, on clearing the camps was imposed by judge Ronald B. Leighton while the parties discuss a solution. Larson said the stay was recently extended for another 30 days.

The Transit board meeting in Hoquiam was packed, with several Aberdeen City Council members in attendance. Several members of the public spoke out against leasing the property for homeless mitigation, and said they think it would negatively impact the downtown area.

“I just think it’s way too close to downtown businesses,” Aberdeen City Council President Tawni Andrews said. “I think we can find a better space.”

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