Care clinic outlined; debate continues on homeless center

Benny Westcott

During the Tuesday, Sept. 28, Sweet Home City Council meeting, Samaritan Health Services representatives discussed plans for a 15,000-square-foot primary and urgent care clinic on the 42-acre site next to the Wiley Creek Community retirement home.

These plans were first announced at a June 10 press conference held at Wiley Creek.

“We are really excited about the project here,” Samaritan Health Services CEO Doug Boyson said at the council meeting. “Despite the craziness of the pandemic, we are still committed to the project.”

“The project we’ve put together over the last year has been able to meet all of the needs the council has identified as priorities,” Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital CEO Marty Cahill added.

Cahill anticipated breaking ground “a little less than a year from now.” The Samaritan reps predicted that construction of the new facility, which will also feature telemedicine and a helipad, would be complete in early 2023.

Samaritan Health operates five hospitals and 80 clinics, employing about 500 clinicians in a service area encompassing Benton, Lincoln and Linn counties. The organization also has its own health insurance company and Medicare/Medicaid plan, and sells commercial insurance to employers. Its residency program includes upward of 111 students working in the system.

“We are dedicated to growing the local economy,” Cahill said. “We are one of the bigger companies in our service area, and we have robust growth in our jobs. It’s the type of jobs where people make good wages and get good benefits, so they buy homes and help build the economic health of the community.”

He said the Sweet Home Family Medicine – Samaritan Health Services building at 679 Main St. will remain on the town’s west end, but its focus will switch more exclusively to physical and occupational therapy services.

“We’re going to remodel it and make sure it works well for that,” he said.

The remodel is slated for the spring of 2023.

Milt Moran, co-chair of the Building a Healthier Sweet Home Campaign Committee, a subcommittee of the Lebanon Community Hospital Foundation board, discussed how the new facility would be an upgrade for Sweet Home, describing the proposed facility as “urgent care on steroids.”

“A lot of people still use the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District [SHF&A] for their health care,” he noted, adding that others travel to Lebanon for their needs. “I don’t think twice about driving to another state, but for some folks it’s really tough to get out of town.”

Moran, who is also president of Cascade Timber Consulting (CTC), foresaw the facility as beneficial to his employees, in particular. “We are getting to be a safer and safer industry all the time, but we still have those accidents,” he said.

CTC recently submitted a $250,000 check to help fund the project.

“I’m ecstatic to see medical services in our community,” Mayor Greg Mahler said. “I’m looking forward to continuing our partnership with Samaritan.”

The facility should cut down on ambulance trips to Lebanon, he added. “Often we use ambulances for headaches and stubbed toes, so we put a lot of wear and tear on our ambulances,” he said.

Discussions continued on a proposed “sleep center” for Sweet Home’s homeless population, a much-discussed topic at recent council meetings. It would be developed on county-owned property behind Bi-Mart and next to Sweet Home Public Works.

The councilors reached a unanimous consensus to have City Manager Ray Towry draft and send a letter to the Linn County Commissioners soliciting feedback on the idea and a sense for existing property plans. Councilor Dylan Richards was not present to weigh in, as he was caught in Portland traffic, according to Mahler.

Sweet Home resident Vince Adams spoke against the idea.

“Our families pay taxes that should not be for this purpose,” he said. “Our infrastructure is already in need of upkeep on a regular basis. If we build it, we are going to have an overflow, and we do not want that. We’re worried about how it’s going to be managed when we get the overflow.”

(At a Sept. 9 special meeting, Towry attempted to mitigate “if you build it, they will come” concerns by stating, “Every community is now doing something. Lebanon is working on building a facility. So there won’t really be a reason for people to be coming here.

“If you are looking to get services, we probably offer a lot less services for people in need than all of our neighboring communities. So would I foresee a lineup of people? I wouldn’t say that, by any means.”)

Adams suggested a subsistence farm model “out of town” that would give clients the “opportunity to earn food and supplies they need. That gives them dignity, not just a handout.”

He also suggested having local churches “stand up and take charge. We could task the churches to step in and fund this.”

“The taxes from hardworking folks in this community should go toward the police department and city staff,” he said, “not toward taking care of people that just want the handout.”

Clark Mill Road resident Jeff Young Clark described the proposed facility as “right in my backyard.”

“If the council wants to proceed with this, if it gets pushed through, it needs to be written into the law that no illegal immigrant can reside there,” he said. “That is not acceptable. It should be for people here that need help.”

Young added that he once worked “boots on the ground” in Eugene to “help people get back to life.”

“There’s some that want and need help in this community, and I’m all for it, if they have behavioral or medical needs or whatever,” he said. “But don’t put it in my backyard and lower my property values.”

Towry’s request for council action (RCA) stated, “People who are experiencing homelessness have a protected right to rest, and many are willing to engage with services if the opportunity arises.”

That “right to rest” is protected by Martin vs. Boise, a 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court decision ruling that cities could not enforce anti-camping ordinances if they didn’t provide enough available shelter beds for homeless people.

Without such a facility, Towry wrote, “Our current situation does not allow our police department to enforce our ordinances. … Having the homeless in a central location has demonstrated a higher rate of success helping to match people with services to treat the underlying cause(s) of their conditions.”

The RCA also stated that the city’s homeless situation adversely affected local businesses and community members, adding that Public Works and fire-department personnel spent substantial amounts of time and resources – and that the city spent approximately $120,000 per year – on such issues.

Homeless-related incidents, it further stated, made up about 9% of the calls for service to the police department. It also claimed that the designated location for homeless residents in the old City Hall’s parking lot had created a “significant issue with SHF&A’s use of the building” for training purposes.

Finally, Towry’s statement noted that “(Sweet Home Public] Library staff spend a significant amount of their time helping homeless find resources on the public computers at the library” and that “staff is aware that people are avoiding the library because they feel uncomfortable with the homeless being there.”

The sleep center is described as “low-barrier,” meaning that, although alcohol, marijuana and illicit drugs are prohibited onsite, clients would not be tested for use offsite. Admission requirements, according to the proposal, are that entry be granted to adults over 18 who require emergency shelter, provided they obey the facility’s rules.

“The Sleeping Center is an emergency shelter and should not be considered a permanent home,” the RCA stated. “Our mission is to provide a temporary safe place for clients until they can arrange more permanent housing.”

A prospective budget predicted that site preparation would cost between $80,000 and $155,000, the build itself would cost $125,000 and community service workers would cost $263,000 annually (the proposal calls for the 24-hour center to be staffed consistently by at least two people). Prospective sources of money for these costs included donations, Linn County and the Family Assistance and Resource Center.

In other business:

— The debate continued on mask mandates, this time with comments directed at the City Hall meeting space itself. “Mask requirements are not being enforced in this community, with disastrous results,” said Brownsville resident David L. Vanderlip.

“Even though you have signs, people come in here without masks. If you are going to have signs up that say masks are required, then you should enforce it.”

Several members of the public present during the meeting were not wearing masks, despite mask-requirement notices posted on the building’s front entrance.

— The council voted unanimously to authorize staff to extend the contract terms with West Yost Associates after a one-year trial period. The city contracted with West Yost for engineer of record services in September 2020.

The firm’s current and ongoing projects include the water treatment plant emergency generator and pumping improvements; 2-inch water line replacements; a water master plan; a water system emergency response plan; a stormwater master plan; street overlays; and miscellaneous general support such as localized flood evaluation and Project Falcon.