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Residents near trail ask city for help with homeless, crime issues

New signs have been added along the Lower Cedar River Trail encouraging walkers to report
New signs have been added along the Lower Cedar River Trail encouraging walkers to report 'unwanted' behavior to the police.
— image credit: Brian Beckley, Renton Reporter

From the front of their home on North Riverside Drive, Diane Dobson and Kevin Hays have a great view.

Directly across the street from the house is the Cedar River in all its glory, with parks and housing on the other side. But lately, the river has not been all they have seen. There are drug deals, prostitution, sex in public and other obvious violations of the law.

There are groups of people partying under the bridges and running drugs up and down from the Lower Cedar River Trail to customers on the roadways, they say. There are pimps and prostitutes operating on the trail and in the parks around, they say. There is noise and litter – some of it drug paraphernalia – and public urination.

It’s the same people year after year, they say, doing the same things, all in full view of the public.

But what they don’t see, according to Dobson and Hays, is the city or police doing enough about their concerns.

Recently, for example, Hays and Dobson saw three naked men under one of the bridges across from their house. They called the police, but when the officer arrived, Dobson said he parked on their side of the bridge and very slowly walked across, giving the men time to scramble into some bushes. The officer looked into the area where the men were reported and then walked back to his car and drove on.

The men immediately returned, according to Hays.

“As a citizen, I’d hope if I report something, officers would speak to any witnesses,” Hays said, adding that much of their dealings with police in the area have been similar.

Earlier this summer, Dobson took her concerns to the City Council. She first appeared with a similar issue last summer but was compelled to return this year because she felt nothing was done about it, and it was getting worse.

Other neighbors in the area reported similar sightings and issues but declined to go on record.

For their part, Mayor Denis Law and police Chief Kevin Milosevich concede that there has been an increase in the homeless population this summer, as well as some of the crimes associated with it, but disagree with Dobson and Hays in their characterization that the city is not doing anything to help the neighborhood.

“There’s no question there’s been an increase,” Law said of the homeless population downtown, but added “We’re trying to find solutions.”

The homeless, both Law and Milosevich said, have as much right to a park, which is what the Lower Cedar River Trail is, as everyone else and must be seen breaking the law for police to do anything.

“The trail is a park. The same rights you and I have . . . a homeless person has,” Milosevich said, but said with the increase in homeless population this summer “we’ve got to keep an eye on it.”

Milosevich reiterated that they have to follow the Constitution and that being homeless is in itself not a crime, the officers must witness something illegal.

Law said there is a fine line between those who don’t look right and those who are breaking the law and until it is the latter, the city’s hands are effectively tied.

However, Law said the city has taken several steps to address the concerns of downtown residents, such as Dobson and Hays, including increased police bike and foot patrols through the area. The mayor said park crews have also increased their presence in the area on weekdays.

Law said the increased police patrols allows the city to write more citation or make arrests if needed. He also said repeat offenders are to be trespassed from the park for a year and the police have recently banned four or five individuals from using the parks.

“If we catch them there again, they go to jail,” Law said, though he said putting homeless people in jail was not something the city wanted to do.

After the parks close at dusk, however, Milosevich admitted the police could be more aggressive in trying to empty them out, specifically the trail.

“We can do a better job at sweeping the parks,” he said. “We’re trying to do that right now.”

The city also plans on investigating the use of barriers to prevent benches from being used as beds, as well as working with police to install cameras in the area. Additional signage instructing anyone seeing illegal activity to call 911 has also been installed.

In addition, according to an email from Deputy Public Affairs Administrator Preeti Shridhar, Community Services will begin coordinating with local services on outreach efforts as well as researching “different types of irrigation systems that could be programmed to go on sporadically during the hours the trail is closed to deter unwanted activity.”

Hays and Dobson said they have seen the increased presence and appreciate it, but still do not feel enough is being done and do not feel that all of the officers who patrol the area take seriously the directive to physically walk the streets, instead staying in their cars.

“We view the city’s response as a knee-jerk reaction to my address to the council,” Dobson said.

Dobson and Hays also try to make a distinction between what they see as the chronically “homeless” and “vagrants” committing crimes. Though there is some overlap, both said they generally support the plight of the chronically homeless and want the city only to go after those breaking the laws, not just looking for a place to sleep for the night.

Their home is near the Salvation Army, which hosts a dinner every night for the homeless and they said vagrants from around the area seem to be flocking to Renton to take advantage of the food and the city’s “hands-off approach” toward homelessness.

Hays said he would like to see better communication between the city and the residents, who live there and see every day which of the people are troublemakers and which are not.

The mayor took exception to Hays’ characterization and said several officers have been sent to speak directly with Dobson and Hays regarding their concerns.

“There’s been a lot of individual and direct communication with the individuals that are down there,” Law said. “We’re closely listening.”

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