PORT ANGELES — A half-month-long cleanup of an abandoned homeless encampment along Valley Creek and a neighborhood watch meeting led to several officials touring the area south of Valley Creek Road.
One of the volunteers who helped in the cleanup on Wednesday said the group cleared 5,340 pounds of garbage from the camps, much of which was found within 50 feet of the creek. One of the camps was left untouched for the officials to see.
They described an area on a hill above the creek littered in garbage, with trash flowing down toward the creek.
They saw multiple propane tanks, and containers with fluids, batteries and crushed glass.
For newly-elected Port Angeles City Councilman Mike French, touring the site brought to mind the host of environmental and social issues that come with homelessness and addiction and thoughts of what the area could become.
“I want to see a city that is walkable and welcoming and we have environmental standards so we can enjoy the beautiful area we live in,” he said.
“There’s so many people that would love to have a jog by the creek. I can’t say there’s funds, but I see potential.”
City Planning Manager Allyson Brekke said the city has long had plans for the Valley Creek area, but hasn’t found funds for any projects.
Officials visited the site at the request of residents in the area following a recent neighborhood watch meeting.
Residents who live in the area said the area along the creek had been used for many years as a camping spot, but in the last two or three years it had been occupied by squatters.
Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said when police go into the encampments — which he said are typically in areas similar to Valley Creek — they are often looking to help people improve their situations rather than arrest them.
He said at this camp, an officer and a representative of Serenity House walked the area in an attempt to connect people to resources, but they didn’t find anyone.
It’s part of a program called the Housing Beat, an initiative PAPD and Serenity House started in 2016 to connect transient people with housing resources.
Many of those camping have mental health issues and/or substance abuse issues, the combination of which often leads to property crime, Smith said.
“People expect to hear we’re writing citations and making arrests,” Smith said. “We don’t say we won’t do that, but that’s not the primary reason we’re up here.
“It’s really to talk people into socially appropriate behavior and to take advantage of all the things here to help them.”
Smith said law enforcement is good at displacing people and changing behavior in the short term, but the goal is to improve lives.
“You never solve all the problems of the world, but you do make progress,” he said.
He said the city had recently posted a notice in the Valley Creek area warning campers that it is illegal to trespass on city property.
He said much of the property along Valley Creek, south of the dead-end on Valley Creek Road, belongs to the city. With copious city regulations concerning waterways and other sensitive areas, camping and dumping trash and human waste would be prohibited even if city officials wanted to allow it, he said.
“It’s heavily regulated so this activity would be prohibited even if we were allowing it, which we’re not,” Smith said. “The human impacts like human waste would have to be accounted for.
State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said while on the tour that illegal camping in areas like Valley Creek is a problem his entire district faces, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.
Chapman said there are resources available for people, but it’s challenging to house people and treat addictions.
“We know there are beds available at night, but I think people for whatever reason, be it mental health issues, opioid addiction or other addictions, people would rather camp out,” he said.
“Neighbors are frustrated and this is putting a lot of strain on local law enforcement departments.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].