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.”