Peter Abbarno Commentary: Tour of Homeless Camp Offers More Proof Washington Is Failing Residents


The past few weeks have been filled with a lot of local information about substance abuse, illegal drug trafficking and the impact drugs have on families, crime and homelessness. 

We are bombarded by the national media about the crisis at the border and the drugs making their way into every one of our communities. Few of us have not witnessed or felt the personal pain that drug addiction has had on our families or communities.

Last week, I attended the “Chemicals of Concern” presentation at Centralia College hosted by the Centralia Police Department. As a parent, I get pretty emotional on the first day of school. As a parent of a new middle schooler, fear grabbed a hold of me when I learned that drug overdose deaths among middle school children (age 10-14) have tripled since 2019.

Eleven people in the United States die each hour.

So far, over 108,000 have already died this year from drug overdoses.

On Thursday, I toured the Blakeslee Junction homeless camp located between Harrison Avenue and Reynolds Road on Washington State Department of Transportation property. I toured the property with residents of the camp, as well as Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza, Chehalis City Councilmember Kevin Carns, county health officials, Riverside Fire Authority representatives and City of Centralia staff. 

One resident of the camp explained that drug abuse is common at the camp and four human beings overdosed in the past week. Thankfully, their lives were saved by Narcan. 

In my experience as a volunteer at food banks and shelters and as a former Centralia city councilor and now state representative, I learned homelessness is a complicated issue that has many causes, including substance abuse, addiction, mental health, domestic violence, abuse and many more. That is why it is so hard to address.

Substance abuse is a well-known cause and consequence of homelessness. That is what I have been witnessing for many years. The tour of Blakeslee Junction and discussion with both health officials and residents of the camp reinforced the problem is getting worse and spreading.

If we can all agree it is a complicated issue and hard to solve, then we have already found some common ground.

If we can also agree that there is no infallible program that will solve all homelessness issues, then we can now agree on two issues.

Most of us would even agree that local community-based programs that allow for flexibility to meet the needs of local residents and reflect the values of a community are more effective and efficient.

Washington state is failing its residents and failing the most vulnerable in our community. Many recent one-size-fits-all programs take failed policies from King County and Seattle and force them on all communities. I know this because I sat through countless legislative committee meetings, House floor debates and a recent Washington State Department of Commerce meeting where the “one way — our way” mentality was expressed.

I watched bills like HB 1540 addressing illicit discharges of wastewater pollution from individuals residing in vehicles not get a hearing. This was legislation I drafted based on our past experience cleaning up the Mellen Street Park and Ride, which is also a WSDOT property. We saw many RVs at Blakeslee Junction contaminating the property with human waste, needles and drug paraphernalia.

At the same time, HB 1540 stalled in the House, sweeping planning mandates for housing, encampments and shelters were imposed regardless of a community’s values or existing programs. They attempt to treat the symptoms but not the root causes.

This year, House Democrats passed House Bill 1169 that eliminates sentence enhancements for certain controlled substance violations committed in protected zones. This means the House passed a bill that lessened the penalty for drug crimes committed near our children’s bus stop. Lower penalties for bus stop drug deals is not a value of our community.

We need more flexibility from the state of Washington for our community to successfully address homelessness, mental health treatment and drug addiction. Programs to address these issues must reflect the values of the community and expand the programs that have already proven to be successful, like Lewis County’s Drug Court.

For an approach to substance abuse and homelessness to work, local governments and organizations need buy-in from their community. That may mean a more incremental and tailored approach as opposed to sweeping new policies.

No person has all the solutions. However, it is clear that the patchwork collection of rigid policies from the state without local control or flexibility are not working. I will continue to encourage stronger broad-based partnerships; support community-based solutions; invest in local substance abuse and mental health programs and providers; and empower our law enforcement officers to keep our streets safe.

We must begin measuring the success of a program by the number of people lifted out of poverty, permanently housed and celebrating sobriety; not by the amount of money the government spends on a program.


Rep. Peter Abbarno is an attorney and represents the 20th Legislative District in the Washington state House of Representatives.