Chief: Homeless camp to be closed in March as other options are considered

Benny Westcott

The last day the homeless encampment at the Church of Nazarene will potentially be open is March 31, Sweet Home Chief of Police Jeff Lynn said last week.

“If March is a beautiful month, we could do this earlier too,” Lynn said. “If March is 70 degrees all the way through, there’s no need for it. This really was designed as an emergency cold weather shelter.”

He noted issues that have arisen at the shelter.

“It’s been a mess. Our calls for service are increasing dramatically, especially since December. I don’t think it’s a healthy place for anybody down there right now. Even the homeless that are here, I don’t think it’s a good environment for them. Part of me was disappointed. I supported it when it first started. It’s a free-for-all mess.”

He mentioned disturbances and sexual assaults that have occurred at the encampment, and that a number of individuals have been forced to leave.

Lynn said that part of the problem is that without clear-cut policies in place, people were coming from places other than Sweet Home to live in the encampment.

“We built it, and they came. And so there was a percentage that weren’t even from our community, from Lebanon to the Albany area that were coming over because they heard there’s a camp over here. And that wasn’t in the plan at all.”

Despite his insistence on a firm deadline for deconstructing the homeless encampment at the Church of Nazarene, Lynn said that “we are months away” from a new shelter.

Even though a new shelter may be months away from becoming a reality, Lynn said plans for a new shelter are beginning to take shape.

“We’ve got a group of people in the community that are together trying to come up with a more permanent fixture where there can be some levels of transition and those who are engaged in services can hopefully work their way out of homelessness. That is really coming together, it’s just taken a lot longer than any of us would want.”

He said the biggest hurdle to overcome was finding an organization with the capacity and willingness to spearhead the creation of a new shelter. But he says that the Family Assistance and Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that serves people experiencing homelessness and housing instability in Linn County, has offered to be of service in this regard.

“Their organization has stepped up and they believe that they could run it, and have a capacity for it. And they’re excited for the opportunity,” Lynn said.

A delay in establishing a new shelter would leave a potential gap in time when Sweet Home’s current homeless encampment population would be left without formal shelter.

“We could be chasing them around for a period,” Lynn said, citing how his police force might have to deal with the homeless. “That’s just the reality of it. But I don’t want to rush something. If we’re going to do something that’s permanent let’s do it right. Let’s take the time and plan and get everything in place so we can do it right.”

“I actually think that having that disband prior to the new shelter opening up wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Lynn said. “Because then you can kind of control the inflow of individuals wanting in through some type of intake process, rather than the whole mass coming over on Day One.”

Lynn said he would want to see certain rules put in place for a longer term shelter.

“No drug or alcohol use on site and a sense of cleanliness and orderliness. Just some of the basic things. No excessive noise, or fighting or disturbing other individuals who are there.”

He mentioned that he wouldn’t support a future encampment unless there was some type of residency requirement for admittance.

“We are too small and we have too few resources to take on other peoples’ homeless issue. We can barely tackle our own, let alone have open arms for everybody else coming in. So that’s just what happens when we’re small and we have finite resources.”

As far as the location of a new shelter goes, Lynn says a few pieces of property have been identified that he thinks would work “really well” as a living arrangement for homeless people. But he suggested that such a location should be chosen conscientiously.

“You can’t just put them out in the boondocks because it has to be close enough for them to access services,” Lynn said. “But, quite honestly, we also want it off of Main Street and Long Street. It doesn’t need to be a fixture in our downtown corridor.”

Lynn said the Family Assistance and Resource Center Group has some funds that they could direct toward a new encampment, but he does not know whether the group would put their funds toward such an effort.

But Lynn says he and his peers are still focusing on the overall concept of what an encampment would look like before they hash out funding details.

He notes that public sentiment varies in Sweet Home on how the issue of homelessness should be approached.

“Everybody has a different opinion on what we should be providing or making available to the homeless. And it’s a whole spectrum. You’ve got some who want them gone, and you’ve got some who say “give them whatever they need.” And then you’ve got everybody in between as well. So navigating that hasn’t been easy.”