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St. Helens struggles to keep up with squatters

Council discusses derelict houses at work session

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Although this house on Kelley Street has been condemned by the city of St. Helens and boarded up, evidence of human activity remains in the form of a garbage pile in the front yard.The St. Helens City Council and city staff discussed the community’s problems with abandoned houses, squatters and homeless residents Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12, after hearing from the city’s newly hired code enforcement officer about the issue.

Officer Scott Williams said St. Helens has a number of residential properties that are in varying states of neglect. Some are abandoned homes illegally inhabited by squatters, who often take up residence in houses that have been foreclosed upon, even when water and sewer access has been shut off. Others have been boarded up and declared uninhabitable in order to keep squatters out, but they still have trash and debris inside and outside the building.

“The banks have to be held accountable,” Williams told the council.

Terry Moss, the city’s police chief, agreed. He suggested the city should prod the banks that own derelict houses in St. Helens to have the properties cleaned up and secured.

The discussion was initiated by Doug Morten, president of the City Council, who was presiding over the afternoon work session. He said he receives frequent complaints and questions from citizens about derelict houses in their neighborhoods.

“The question keeps coming back to, ‘What is the city going to do about this?’” he said. “We need to come up with some answers.”

Williams only works as a code enforcement officer for the city two days per week. His workload exceeds the hours he has to do his job, Moss and city building officer Don Sallee said.

Moss said the city should allot hours for a full-time code enforcement officer to handle the work. But he also noted that the squatting problem is connected to a broader issue of homelessness in the St. Helens area.

“It’s one of those things that it’s like squishing a balloon,” he said. “You squeeze it in one spot and it pops out in another. ... These folks that we’re running out of these abandoned homes are either going to another abandoned home, or they’re ending up in a [homeless] camp somewhere in one of our parks or abandoned properties, and it creates a problem for us on a different level, on another side of town.”

Even still, Sallee said, squatting is not a proper solution for St. Helens’ homeless.

“I don’t think living in residential neighborhoods and houses they don’t belong is a place for them to be,” he said.