Vivian Rogers Decker, a community activist who started the SPIN Cafe, speaks at an Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday night about homelessness in the city.

Vivian Rogers Decker, a community activist who started the SPIN Cafe, speaks at an Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday night about homelessness in the city.

Meeting on homeless problems turns emotional

An Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday night provided the police chief with the chance to explain what the police are doing — and what they can’t do — to address problems in the downtown area with trespassing and larger safety issues.

It turned emotional, however, when several residents and business owners expressed frustration with people identified variously as homeless, transients and vagrants. The speakers described parks and property fouled with human feces and hypodermic needles, people sleeping in doorways, people acting in frightening and inappropriate ways, as well as vandalism and other crime.

They said they didn’t feel safe.

“It’s hurting my business,” said Dawn Keith-Madeiros, who owns Bayshore Chiropractic. “It’s hurting my friends and it’s hurting downtown.”

Several people said the problem was the services offered to low-income and homeless people in Oak Harbor were “enabling” them and attracting others to the area. A number of charities are located in and around downtown, including the Help House, SPIN Cafe, the Garage of Blessings and Island Thrift.

One woman earned applause when she said people should stop giving to the Garage of Blessings, which provides free clothing and other items to those in need. Several people said there needs to be an “ID system” for providing food and other services.

Near the end, Vivian Rogers Decker, a community activist who started the SPIN Cafe, got up in front of the crowd of about 100 people and criticized those who blamed the homeless individuals, the majority of whom are from the community and suffer from disabilities.

“You want to put it all on people of poverty,” she said, adding that they need to look at the “large, systemic problems.”

Decker, who also works as a homeless liaison for the Oak Harbor schools, said Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is part of the Navy’s Exceptional Family Members Program designed to help sailors who have family members with special needs. As a result, a large number of people with special needs stay in the community and sometimes end up on the streets when their caretakers die.

“They are here and we have a responsibility to care for them,” she said.

The meeting was a follow-up from one held about nine months ago. Christine Cribb, executive director of the chamber, said trespass, safety and related issues continue to be among the top concerns she hears from members.

Police Chief Kevin Dresker gave a presentation about what his department and the city are doing to address the problems. The police are increasing patrols, especially officers on bikes, in the south part of town, from the marina to Walmart.

The police will have an embedded social worker under an Island County program.

Dresker said city officials are looking at changes in code, like increasing the time a person can be excluded from public property after breaking rules.

The city made changes to the intersection at the entrance to Haggen to discourage panhandling, but Dresker explained that it’s unconstitutional to ban panhandling unless it’s in an area that would cause a traffic hazard — like on on-ramp to a highway.

He said he’s working with businesses and property owners with “crime prevention through environmental design,” which may include security cameras, lighting and landscape changes. His office and the city’s code enforcement officer are working with the owners of several wooded properties to clean up large amounts of trash left by homeless encampments.

At the end of the meeting, Dresker reiterated that while the problems are difficult, they are by no means unique to Oak Harbor, which remains “truly one of the safest communities.”

More in News

Clinics scheduled to reopen next week

WhidbeyHealth is reopening several of its primary and specialty care clinics starting… Continue reading

Man accused of sending child porn

A 38-year-old Oak Harbor man is being held in jail after he… Continue reading

Man charged with raping teenager

An Anacortes resident is accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl at… Continue reading

Island triathlon taking on virtual format this year

For the first time in its history, the Whidbey Island Triathlon will… Continue reading

Veterinary clinic in Oak Harbor celebrating 40th anniversary

Best Friends Veterinarian Center in Oak Harbor celebrated its 40th anniversary last… Continue reading

Local libraries adapt programs to support social distancing

Even with all locations closed to the public because of COVID-19, the… Continue reading

‘Fascist paradigm” bemoaned | Island Scanner

Thursday, May 14 At 5:26 a.m., a Main Street resident reported seeing… Continue reading

One-shoe man breaks into Burger King, cooks food

A man broke into Burger King in Oak Harbor overnight and cooked… Continue reading

Black Lives Matter: Formed in response to George Floyd’s killing, weekend protest stays peaceful

A Black Lives Matter protest in Oak Harbor Saturday remained peaceful and,… Continue reading

Most Read