WARRENTON — Hidden among the trees and blackberry bushes on Port of Astoria property, Veronica waits Wednesday for her ride to come back.
The 20-year-old, with dark hair and pale skin, is surrounded by two tents, four barking dogs, empty bags of food, dog food and bottles on Northeast King Avenue. Shopping carts stashed with belongings are parked in the brush.
It’s how the mother of two has been living for the past month, after a car accident on Sunset Beach stranded her and three friends on the coast.
Now, the group is down to three with big plans to move to Colorado. They say they got a ride with a friend and are leaving in the morning, after the Port told them they had until 6 p.m. to move on or face police intervention.
But Veronica doesn’t know whether she’ll go or not.
“It’s new, it’s different. But it’s not for me. It’s my first time being homeless and I don’t like it,” the former resident of Portland said.
She had a choice to make – leave Oregon for the unknown, with no job or housing lined up, or return to the city of roses which is anything but for her.
Back home, her husband and two children wait. He abuses her, she said.
“I might go back because,” she said, with a glimmer of fear in her eyes, “that’s what you do when you are abused. You always run back, right? I’ve been married since I was 17. This has been my life.”
Veronica makes no mention of other family.
In her back pocket, she shared a photo of her and her husband, and her two children – a son, 2, and a daughter, 4, – in happier times. It’s an old-time photo. Everyone is smiling.
“I haven’t seen my son in a month,” she said, near tears. “That’s really hard. But I know he’s warm, well fed. He’s taken care of. My husband won’t do nothing to him. He’s a good daddy.”
Going to Colorado is Junior, the biological father of Veronica’s son, and Junior’s wife, Krystal.
Veronica said her friends don’t want her to go back to her husband. “They are getting some bags right now so we can get our stuff out of here and get out of Oregon. Colorado is just somewhere to go, I guess. Something fun to do. We don’t want to stay in Oregon. Nothing good has happened here. I’ve lost (custody of) my daughter here, I’ve lost (custody of) my son here. I’m gone. I’m not going to be here anymore. This whole thing of being on the coast, I mean we were supposed to be here for a day. I’m so close to home that I want to go back, but they won’t let me. They don’t want to see me abused no more.”
A day trip
When the sun is shining and the weather warms up, more people are drawn to the coast. That’s how Veronica and her friends got here in early March. A day trip to the beach took a turn for the worst when the car, driven by Krystal, flipped and rolled.
They’ve been homeless ever since. And while some transients are “out of sight, out of mind” in the eyes of many in the community, this group stuck out, with their shopping carts and four dogs in tow.
“I have been watching four young adults with four dogs in two shopping carts for two weeks in and around Astoria that decided to be transients,” resident Carol Cramer told the Astoria City Council during the March 18 meeting.
Cramer said police asked the group to move along from Astoria and they “caused a big commotion on the Old Youngs Bay Bridge,” March 16.
Still, Cramer said at the meeting, “Today, one of them was back in Astoria. Hopefully he has a bus ticket and is on his way home. But when I talked to them they tell me this town is easy to be a transient in. Help is available.”
Veronica said police in Astoria harassed her group. They moved to Warrenton, where the officers and port officials have only contacted them twice.
“We decided to cross the bridge and come over here. It’s nice out here,” she said. “Nobody’s bothering us.”
Astoria Deputy Police Chief Brad Johnston said transients are often advised of the city’s no camping ordinance. But the latest group of four here are not the first or the last to visit the North Coast.
“If I were to guess at the population we contact regularly, it is probably 12 to 15 (transients) that are regular contacts on an ongoing basis,” Johnston said. “Some of these are local residents who have resources to assist them but due to issues with mental health, drugs or alcohol, end up on the street.”
From six-figures to life on the streets
One of those local transients is Anne Taylor.
Taylor often sleeps underneath the Astoria Bridge, a short hike up a path from the Under the Bridge smoke shop.
“I just sleep up here,” Taylor said. “I live out there,” looking to the streets.
Taylor, 52, with a slight stutter, said she lost her job in the Beaverton area in 2005, which started her “downfall.” She came to the coast for another job opportunity at a local hotel. but when she lost that position, she lost her apartment on the coast, too.
It’s been a rough road ever since.
“I lost my job of about 15 years which put my house on the line,” she said. “I got the heck out of Dodge and moved here to start over. That went OK for another 2 1/2 years. And then I lost my piece of shit job here, and that put me on the street.”
Sgt. Ken Hansen, who with Officer Ryan Sisley paid Taylor and other known homeless people a visit Thursday, shed a little more light on her story.
“She used to work for FedEx,” Hansen said. “She was a supervisor, I think. Good job, pretty high up. But she has a pretty bad drinking problem. They sent her to rehab a few times but I guess it didn’t stick. So they fired her.”
“I tried to off myself, because I thought, ‘How can you make it out here?’ And that didn’t work. In fact that actually turned out to be comical,” she said. “But I realized that I would never do that again. I would like to do that, I mean I meant for it to happen. It wasn’t for like attention or anything like that. But what I have become is kind of like a mentor to these kids out here, and a teacher, and directing them on how important school is and to stay in school and to not get involved in that heroin or meth crap that’s out there.
“So actually, for being a person out here, I’m a good guy.”
Taylor is not a problem transient, Hansen said. Officers don’t contact her for crime or nuisance behavior. For money, she picks up cans.
“She actually helps keep the others in line. We’ll come into contact with her when we’re looking for somebody else generally,” Hansen said. “She’s kind of like the mom of some of the transients. The guardian for some of them. She’s really nice, actually.”
The transient population Astoria Police contact regularly, Johnston said, “adds to our crime rate frequently with crimes against each other and quality of life offenses. Most significant to much of our population’s perception of safety is affected by issues like panhandling at the ATM, transient camps on the Riverwalk, and similar issues.”
Sisley said it’s an ongoing problem and he tries to work with the people the best that he can. Some of them are just in unfortunate situations with not a lot of options. Others could, but are unwilling to help themselves. You can write citations until you are blue in the face, he said, but if they don’t have any money, it doesn’t do any good.
“There are lots of opportunities for some of them to help themselves and get themselves out of the gutter, so to speak,” Sisley said. “A lot of times, they are just unwilling to do those things. They don’t want to put in the effort and the time to do the things they need to do. So it’s a two-way street. You have to kind of just take each contact with them as its own situation and go from there.”
Sometimes transients are confrontational – especially those with drug and alcohol dependancy and/or mental illness. Nine out of 10, Hansen said, don’t pose a threat.
Cramer said she hopes the city will work with Astoria Police to lessen the problem before it gets worse.
“There’s more and more of them and we do have a problem,” she said. “Something needs to be addressed or done. Spring’s coming and I see more of them moving into town. And that’s not the way we want to represent our community.”
The increased transient population is not just specific to Astoria.
Clatsop Community Action Executive Director George Sabol said that although the number of homeless in Clatsop County has not yet been finalized for 2013, there has been a significant increase in the last year. More than 1,000 individuals – more than 600 families – were tallied as homeless during the last week of January.
In 2012, there were 640 individuals tallied, up from 407 in 2011.
“It’s gone up every year for the last six years,” Sabol said. “And part of this is doing a better count but last year to this year, we didn’t do anything differently and it still went up significantly. That’s very telling.”
In Warrenton, Police Chief Mathew Workman estimates 10 to 15 transients are living in the city limits during any given time.
Officers have between five and 10 contacts per month with transients. He said those contacts are not always related to crimes, but when a transient is present, officers often receive complaints.
“The transients and homeless who are in Warrenton do not have a significant affect on crime,” Workman said. “They do have an effect though. Some of the calls that officers respond to include panhandling, begging, hitchhiking, setting up a camp, trespassing, theft, shoplifting or suspicious persons calls, to name a few.”
Workman said the city is aware of the transient camp set up on county property behind Costco. That transient group was previously asked to leave Port of Astoria property on Northeast King Avenue by Port authorities when a homeless camp was discovered there.
Thefts in the area, as well as damage to the Warrenton Marina bathrooms was reported during that time period, Workman said.
‘The harbormaster suspected that the transients and homeless were responsible,” he said.
Thursday, Warrenton Police Officer Ray Ayers investigated the remanence of other known transients camps off of Northeast King Avenue.
“They’ll be back,” he said of the largest former camp, where a car seat, queen mattress, moldy pillows and large piles of garbage are spread out. In the back of the camp is a giant grave-shaped hole in the ground, at least 6 feet deep.
Ayers says he doesn’t know why the hole was dug, out of boredom or something more sinister.
The camp was discovered last July. Police are watching for when the group returns.
“A lot of the confrontation we deal with has to do with how intoxicated they are,” Ayers said of his contact with the transients. “A lot of it has to do with mental illness. The people in this camp moved on to Portland I think. But as soon as the weather gets nice, they’ll be back up here. When we first came out here, there were 12 people. But I think there could be more.”
Other campsites are scattered, with a few new ones pointed out to Ayers Thursday by Port Facility Security Officer Jim Peyok.
Peyok’s seen it all in his nearly 30 years with the Port.
He politely declined comment, before assisting Veronica and her friends with their trash.
Most transients don’t clean out their sites when asked to leave, but when Veronica asked to fill the back of Peyok’s truck with trash to transport to a nearby dumpster, he said he would be happy to help.
Then, as the 6 p.m. deadline approached, it was back to work for Peyok and decision-making time for Veronica, who found herself at a crossroads on Northeast King Avenue.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.