Aberdeen church steps up to offer a home to riverfront campers

The church council for Amazing Grace Lutheran Church voted unanimously last week to host a campsite on church property for those now living on the Chehalis riverfront

Pastor Val Metropoulos said the campers will be allowed to move into the area June 1. The church, she said, will work with city officials to create a code to govern the camp, which can be located there for 90 days.

The decision by the Aberdeen church comes more than two months after the city posted orders to vacate the property where more than 20 people are now camping in tents. The area, then overrun with trash, had become unsafe, city officials had said.

In mid-March, the campers and their advocates asked the city for more time and assistance in finding an alternative place to go, and the mayor granted an extension. Since then, volunteers, campers and the city have led clean-up efforts on the property, owned by Michael Lang.

Last month, Lang entered into an agreement with the city to have the area rid of the campers, trash and noxious weeds by June 1.

Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, along with several other local religious organizations, has advocated for assistance for those living along the river. Metropoulos said the plan to host a camp in the church’s parking lot near the corner of North I and East Third streets was “overwhelmingly positive,” both from the council and the congregation.

The next steps, she said, would be to collect input from the church’s neighbors and develop an agreement with city officials about the camp’s governance.

“We want to meet with the neighbors, so we’ll be listening and we’ll be doing everything we can to make it work for everyone,” she said.

The church’s decision to host the camp is protected by the U.S. Constitution as a way to exercise its right to practice religion, said Aberdeen City Attorney Eric Nelson. The Revised Code of Washington says religious organizations can host campsites for up to 90 days.

Nelson said an agreement with a church for a homeless encampment would need to be determined on an ad-hoc basis since no code now exists. Officials have said their code would be modeled after Spokane’s ordinance addressing homeless encampments.

Bill Sidor, the city’s code enforcement officer, said an encampment that met sanitation requirements would need to offer a portable commode and trash bins. The church will also need to develop guidelines explaining how the camp’s rules will be enforced.

The church has garnered the support of other religious organizations that have offered donations. Because the camp can operate for only 90 days at the site, Metropoulos said, ideally, three more churches would offer up land to camp on for the other three-fourths of the year.

Some campers said they appreciate the church’s gesture, but are skeptical about the conditions the camp would offer. Privacy, they said, could be hard to find.

“It puts us right out in the open, right out in plain view of everything and everybody,” said John Gullotto, who’s been living on the riverfront for nearly a year. He said it only takes a flashlight to see silhouettes inside a tent.

Gullotto said news of a campsite in the church’s parking lot didn’t garner positive reaction from campers, and no one has started packing. But, he said. they’ll likely end up there when the June 1 deadline hits.

The Rev. Sarah Monroe with Westport-based Chaplains on the Harbor has advocated for the campers for years, leading the outreach efforts that began in March. She said the new campsite is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t the solution.

“I hope that this is a catalyst for the city to start talking about a much larger housing crisis and about the fact that huge numbers of the citizens of Aberdeen are struggling with Aberdeen and struggling to survive,” she said.