A mess to clean up: Issue of homelessness is one community must address, says interim chief

The Freund family homestead is one of the last, large patches of green space in Oak Harbor city limits. Just west of Safeway, the 20 acres contain a knot of woods, three homes and outbuildings. It also is home to uninvited guests who camp overnight and leave trash and their belongings behind.

The Freund family homestead is one of the last, large patches of green space in Oak Harbor city limits.

Just west of Safeway, the 20 acres contain a knot of woods, three homes and outbuildings.

It also is home to uninvited guests who camp overnight and leave trash and their belongings behind.

IT’S FRUSTRATING for owner Carl Freund, who, while sympathetic to people with no other place to sleep, is tired of cleaning up piles of refuse on his land.

It’s a problem that’s grown worse over the years.

Freund took his concerns to Oak Harbor Police Department’s Community Advisory Board, a place for residents to bring concerns about public safety issues.

There is no easy solution, said interim Police Department Administrator Terry Gallagher, who was previously police chief in Port Angeles.

Residents want the police to fix the problem. What the police can do is limited. Panhandling isn’t illegal. There’s no shelter in town for the homeless to sleep, explained Gallagher.

Even if there were, people using drugs or alcohol couldn’t stay there, he said. Police could roust people off the property but they come back.

“You can’t criminalize homelessness,” Gallagher said.

“This is a community problem that needs a community solution. What’s happening in Oak Harbor is happening all over the U.S.”

THE FREUND family settled on the land in 1850. Members of his family accepted a donation land claim of 320 acres that spanned from the waterfront to roughly where Oak Harbor High School is located. Over time, portions of the land were developed, making way for Walmart, Safeway and Haggen. Part of the remaining portion includes this parcel of land.

Its proximity to the bustling commercial center that includes Walmart and State Highway 20 makes it visible to residents and visitors.

Freund still mows the grass and maintains a large vegetable garden. He also spends time picking up trash.

A recent visit to his property revealed piles of garbage, especially in the six acres that’s wooded. There were empty food containers, beer cans and mounds of dirty clothes. Abandoned campsites, some still with tarps and tents, were visible throughout the woods and amongst the blackberry bushes.


ONE CAMPSITE featured a tent with a blow- up mattress, sleeping bag and pillows. A boot brush cleaner sat outside the tent. Behind the tent were piles and piles of trash spilling from grocery store plastic bags.

A peek-a-boo view from the campsite through the trees of Oak Harbor’s waterfront was better than many of the houses up the hill.

Freund could only survey the site and shake his head.

He had to stop using the outbuildings on the farm property and barricade them because they kept getting broken into. And there were close calls. Twice mowing on his tractor he’s almost ran over men sleeping in the tall grass.

AFTER YEARS of dealing with the situation, Freund said he is resigned to people trespassing. It’s not always homeless people. People who live in neighborhoods above regularly cut through the land to get to the Island Transit bus stop on Erie Street.

What concerns him isn’t the trespassing, but the trash. He said he can’t keep up with keeping the land clean. He’s not sure what the solution is but he wishes the city had a homeless shelter so people had some place other than his property to sleep.

“I’d like the public to be aware of the problem,” he said.

“We do have a transient problem in Oak Harbor,” he said. “It can’t be left to the property owners to deal with it.”

“(CARL FREUND) has a big heart,” Gallagher said. “He wasn’t concerned about the homeless needing a place to sleep.”

The police department can’t act as a security service, patrolling private property.

Since Freund complained, Gallagher said, police have paid the area more attention on their patrols.

Oak Harbor’s homeless population isn’t unique.

The police chief saw the same problems in his hometown of Port Angeles.

He said a woman there spearheaded an effort last year to fix some of the town’s problems and ended up doing more good in a year with no budget than government could do in 10 years. An organization, called Revitalize Port Angeles, takes on a variety of issues and projects, such as cleaning up and painting public eyesores and raising money to turn a shuttered movie house into a performing arts center — all with no public money or board of directors.

A related group, Port Angeles Citizens Action Network, addresses addiction, particularly in the homeless population.

He cited these efforts as examples of everyday people stepping up to solve complicated community problems.

“The key word is ‘positive,’” he said. “They require people to not complain about a problem but maintain a positive attitude and resolve issues in the community.”

GALLAGHER SUGGESTED suggested that a community group such as a Boy Scout troop could adopt the Freund property as an ongoing service project.

He addressed a misconception he hears plenty: the free Island Transit bus brought the homeless here.

“Everybody wants to believe they are bused here from somewhere,” he said. “(Oak Harbor) is perfectly capable of developing their own homeless right here.”

Many of the homeless are struggling with addiction or mental health issues.

“We’ve shoved our mental health people on the street,” he said. “We don’t want to see it. We want them to be somewhere else.”

But in Oak Harbor, there is nowhere else.

“It’s not enough to call the police,” he said. “The police have a role to play but the police will not solve the social issues.

The community needs to get involved.”

IN OAK HARBOR, churches,nonprofits, public agencies such as Island County, and passionate individuals are working to address homelessness and serve people in need.

One of those individuals is Vivian Rogers Decker, president and founder of Spin Cafe on Bayshore Drive in Oak Harbor.

Spin Cafe offers a place to do laundry, referrals to other services and free meals several days a week. Her day job is for the Oak Harbor School District, serving as a homeless liaison. That role helped make her more aware of the complicated issues surrounding homelessness and spurred her to action.

Among those issues is a lack of access to laundry facilities, the inability to pay to use a laundromat and the difficulty of carting belongings on one’s back. That may explain the large mounds of dirty, discarded clothes on the Freund property.

HOMELESSNESS is a many-headed hydra. Mental health issues and addiction are part of the problem. In Oak Harbor, a lack of good-paying jobs and affordable housing also play a role.

Rogers Decker said she fights the perception that providing services will attract more homeless.

“That’s the perception — that people are coming from off island to Whidbey, and we have all these resources,” she said. “We don’t have more resources than other places.”

One of the area’s resources, free bus service on Island Transit, doesn’t run late at night and on weekends, the times when people working low-wage or entry-level jobs often work, she said.

AS FOR the Freund property, any solutions need to involve the people littering, Rogers Decker said. Perhaps the city or county could provide a dumpster.

The lack of affordable housing is of special concern to Rogers Decker.

As the Navy brings more personnel to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in the next several years, that problem will only get worse as the population increases and landlords of low-income, subsidized housing convert their properties to standard rentals with higher rents, she said.

“It’s a complicated situation and there are no quick solutions,” she said.

“Having people be sober, having affordable housing, having more mental health services — no one thing will solve this problem.”