Business owners and community members voiced concerns to city officials about trespassing, littering and safety issues during a special meeting Tuesday.
The meeting, held by the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, stemmed from growing concerns about the homeless population on Whidbey Island, particularly in Oak Harbor.
Christine Cribb, executive director for the chamber, said she has received 67 complaints about panhandling, loitering and trespassing since April of this year.
Last year, she said, she received only six complaints.
Cribb stressed that the complaints weren’t about the entire homeless population on Whidbey, but about a group of 20-30 people.
Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns said that he receives more complaints about trespassing than any other issue.
“We’ve had some things going on in Oak Harbor, but not to the degree that we’re seeing today,” Severns said.
In response, Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker explained the state laws regarding trespassing. Criminal trespass in the first degree is when a person “knowingly enters or remains in a building unlawfully,” according to state law, he said.
The only difference between first- and second-degree trespassing is that the latter covers “circumstances not constituting criminal trespass in the first degree,” according to the laws.
If someone calls the police to report trespassing, officers will come and decide whether or not they can remove them, Dresker said.
Police can remove someone if they are creating a disturbance, but not because of a person’s race, color, creed or origin, he said.
“We’ll probably just tell (the trespasser) ‘the business requests you not to return,’” Dresker said.
If a homeless person is in a public place like a park, Dresker said, police can’t remove them if they’re not violating any rules.
Audience members also voiced concerns about panhandling.
Panhandling is not against the law, Dresker said, and is a legally protected form of speech. People have the right to refuse panhandlers, however, he said.
Fire department Deputy Chief Mike Buxton said he agrees that there seem to be more homeless people in Oak Harbor. The most important thing he says he can tell the business community is to take steps to avoid communicable diseases such as hepatitis A and B, tuberculosis and HIV.
“They’re not just homeless people diseases – they’re in our communities,” Buxton said. However, it’s difficult for people living in “hard conditions” to fight those diseases, he said.
Audience members wanted to know what businesses can do to protect employees and customers from these health concerns.
“Clean your public restrooms, every day, with bleach” he said.
He advised people to wear gloves and use tongs to avoid direct contact while cleaning or removing trash and warned people not to steam clean, which can make hazardous materials airborne.
Many of the meeting’s attendees said they are concerned about hypodermic needles. One business manager said she fears for her employees’ safety after one employee found multiple needles in the bathroom.
“I don’t have a great answer for you,” Buxton said, except to educate staff on how to handle needles. He did caution against installing a sharps container because it may attract more drug users.
Buxton told the audience the fire department has found some needles but not many.
If an employee does find a needle and the business does not have an appropriate container in which to put them, Buxton advises them to “pick it up by the barrel with rubber gloves, put it in an old water bottle, and throw it in the trash.”
If a person is uncomfortable handling needles, Buxton said, people can call the fire department and they will handle the needle.
Dresker and Buxton conceded they don’t have all of the answers to the homeless concerns.
Asked what to do if a person is yelling obscenities in a business’s parking lot, Dresker said, there is no good solution right now due to mental health issues and capacity issues at mental health facilities.
Several meeting attendees also talked about incidences of trespassing and littering at their homes, businesses or in public parks.
Solutions suggested by audience members were changing zoning laws to limit the concentration of service organizations in any one area, improving mental health care services or enacting a law to prevent giving money to panhandlers.
A few people said they want to see a coordinated effort from the county that homelessness was not just an Oak Harbor issue, but a Whidbey Island issue.
Cribb told the audience that the chamber would be sending the full list of recommendations for possible solutions to the mayor.