After much contention, efforts to temporarily relocate a homeless encampment on East Chestnut Avenue to a city-owned parking lot across the street from the Yakima Police Department were to begin Thursday.
Police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr. said city staff will issue notices informing campers that they have 72 hours to either move to the parking lot or find another place.
“This is a nonconfrontational move we’re doing,” Rizzi said. “This is to get them a safe place and to get them some services.”
The encampment is bulging with campers on a narrow strip of public property between South Sixth and South Seventh streets. During the past two weeks, the encampment has almost doubled in size, with more than 50 people living in more than two dozen tents.
City council members approved moving the encampment to the parking lot by a 5-2 vote this week. The decision came after weeks of debate over where to temporarily relocate the encampment until a plan to house the homeless takes effect in early August.
A federal court ruling requires cities to provide alternative sites for homeless encampments before kicking them off public property.
There’s been tension over the encampment since it began in early spring. Neighbors and downtown business owners have complained about an increasing homeless population in the area. They say it’s impacting the quality of life and disrupting business.
Now, the growing encampment is spilling into the street, Mayor Avina Gutiérrez said.
“I’m concerned that somebody sooner or later is going to get hurt,” she said. “I drive by there every day and there’s people out in the street obstructing traffic.”
An emergency effort to immediately move the encampment across the sidewalk and onto an empty lot owned by Yakima Neighborhood Health Services failed when Councilman Bill Lover voted against it. Such an emergency move to push the camp onto privately owned property required unanimous approval from the council. Camping in residential areas is not allowed in the city, but a temporary exemption could have been granted if the emergency move would have garnered full support of the council.
Lover, who wanted alternative sites considered, said he disagreed with merely moving the encampment across a sidewalk in fear that it would continue to grow in the residential area.
“I don’t even call it moving,” he said. “We’re just going to enlarge it and move it across the sidewalk.”
Gutiérrez wasn’t happy with Lover’s dissenting vote.
“I don’t know why councilman Lover wouldn’t support that,” she said. “They’re already there. That’s something we could have done immediately.”
Council members Maureen Adkison and Kathy Coffey voted against moving the encampment to the parking lot near the police station, on South Third Street between East Walnut and Spruce streets.
Coffey worries the location will upset business owners, who have complained about a greater presence of homeless people downtown since the encampment began.
“That is in the heart of downtown,” she said. “The business owners are going to … I don’t know.”
Adkison said that location possibly presents complications for women and children entering and leaving a nearby building police use to interview victims in abuse cases.
Even so, the city needs to quickly move on an alternative site for the camp, Gutiérrez said.
“We just don’t have any more time,” she said. “I just can’t wait — I need something done now.”
Portable toilets and a hand-washing station placed at the encampment will be moved to the parking lot, and Neighborhood Health will continue to provide services to the homeless and watch over the camp once it’s moved, said spokeswoman Leah Ward.
A plan to house the homeless using a mix of federal and local funds will get underway the first week of August, after a service provider is selected to oversee the project, said Tim Sullivan, manager of the countywide homeless program that oversees homeless funding sources.
Neighborhood Health — which has already identified landlords of 30 units willing to rent to the homeless — stands a good chance of being awarded the project, Sullivan has said.
If awarded the project, Neighborhood Health would use the revolving funds, some $307,000 a year, to secure apartments on an annual contract with the landlords under a master-lease agreement, Ward said.