In 2019, the City of Longview was faced with a mounting and unprecedented crisis related to homelessness. Numerous encampments developed in public spaces and began to impact businesses and citizens. The needs of unsheltered individuals exceeded the services and housing available in the community. Frustrated business owners faced unsanitary conditions around their businesses and citizens worried about the impacts of homeless encampments in our city parks and on public property. During this period of time, law enforcement and emergency services were greatly impacted as calls for service related to these issues increased dramatically.
On December 27, 2019, Longview City Council designated a location on Alabama Street as an unhosted homeless encampment. It was intended to be temporary while local governments worked towards identifying a more permanent solution. However, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and stifled any short-term plans for a more structured, hosted environment for unsheltered individuals. The mounting crisis continued to affect neighboring businesses, residents, and the community.
A 2018, the Ninth Circuit court ruling, Martin v. Boise, held that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds available for their homeless individuals. Although there have been differing interpretations of this ruling and opinions around enforcement options, it was clear governments could not criminalize indigent, homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors on public property. Since the court decision was issued, the City of Longview has worked tirelessly to understand the court decision and remain in legal compliance as it applied enforcement actions.
For three years, the City of Longview worked with Cowlitz County, the City of Kelso, and many community partners to create a solution to address the growing number of unsheltered individuals in the community. Different ideas and locations for a hosted environment were considered and eventually, a Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued by Cowlitz County to secure a host for a managed site. Cowlitz County received only one proposal in response to the RFP and rejected the proposal in June 2022, due to lack of qualifications. Knowing the unhosted encampment could not continue and hearing the community outcry to close it down, the Longview City Council took bold action and established Hope Village, a housing readiness program facilitated by the Salvation Army. The City secured funding from the State Department of Commerce for operating Hope Village. After its first year of operations, Hope Village has been successful in drastically reducing calls for service and has placed almost 50 individuals into permanent housing. Hope Village not only provides housing, but connects residents to important services, helping with specific needs, and encouraging employment. Going forward, the City plans to request funding from our legislators through legislative priorities for 2024 operating expenses.
In 2021, the “Blake Decision” rendered by the Washington Supreme Court essentially legalized use and possession of drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine in Washington State. The ripple effects of this decision manifested in the increased boldness of criminals within the community. With a growing backlog of cases and overwhelmed law enforcement, the criminal element exploited the systems’ vulnerabilities, leading to a surge in brazen criminal acts. The community, grappling with the consequences of the pandemic, now faced an additional threat from a criminal element that had adapted to the new norm of delayed justice.
City Council approved funding in 2021 for the Longview Police Department (LPD) to create a Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) staffed with mental health professionals who could assist police officers with crises calls. As a part of their daily duties, BHU works to identify and assist individuals who are suffering from mental health issues and need assistance with connecting to available services. BHU partners with the city’s Community Outreach Coordinator to connect individuals experiencing homelessness to social service providers and to educate them on public camping ordinances.
In 2022, LPD was tasked with implementing enforcement measures in identified problem areas and targeting the criminal elements that had grown in the wake of the pandemic. This effort included enforcement of unlawful camping, unlawful possession of a shopping cart, and violation of park curfew hours. Officers have made several arrests in Longview for misdemeanor warrants, ranging from theft to assault. Unlawful camping in the City has diminished from a widespread crisis experienced in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Ordinances have been updated to work with stores to keep their shopping carts where they belong and off the streets. Additionally, the County jail began to loosen its booking restrictions as the COVID-19 pandemic waned, which greatly aided in enforcement of local and state laws.
In July 2023, the Longview City Council enacted a municipal ordinance that criminalized the use and possession of dangerous drugs. This ordinance allowed police officers in Longview to start making arrests for these drug related crimes - more than 45 days before other agencies in Cowlitz County. This gave our police officers a considerable head-start over the summer to address the disastrous impacts caused by the Blake Decision.
Police officers continue to work closely with BHU and the Community Outreach Coordinator to find ways to assist unsheltered individuals while balancing the community’s expectation for parks and public spaces to be free from encampments. Through education, encouragement and enforcement, the city has been able to connect unsheltered individuals to local services and getting them off the streets.
As we reflect on 2023, let’s celebrate the progress made in our community to improve public safety. With tenacious leadership, a City Council that was willing to take risks and step out of the box, a dedicated police force, the passionate BHU and Community Outreach Coordinator, complimented with incredible city staff, the City of Longview is paving the way with bold strategies and solutions. The combined effort over the last several years is making a difference, and Longview is on the path to a cleaner, safer future.