City Council discusses homeless center plan

Benny Westcott

By Benny Westcott

Of The New Era

Last winter, an impromptu tent encampment at the Nazarene Church provided shelter to Sweet Home’s homeless, a subset of the population that consists of 44 people, according to a count conducted in January of this year by a group primarily made up of Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC) volunteers.

In an effort to avoid that and offer alternatives to people sleeping on the streets, the Community Health Committee, which includes city staff, community members and City Councilor Lisa Gourley, has been meeting at City Hall over the past few months to develop a plan.

“Winter is coming quickly. It’s months away,” Community Health Committee member Larry Horton said during the city council’s Wednesday, Aug. 25, meeting at City Hall.

“I would hate to see us go back to a tent city. That was not what our community wants. Maybe our community doesn’t want to address the problem at all; maybe we want to bury our heads in the sand and hope it goes away. But I don’t think it will. If you don’t believe that, look at every offramp on I-5. Every one of them is growing. They are unmanaged, filthy, dirty tent cities. I think that will spread, but I hope to not see that in Sweet Home.”

“We need to start moving or else we’re going to end up not being able to do anything except what we did last year,” he added.

Horton’s Powerpoint presentation, “Sweet Home Community – Addressing Homelessness,” outlined a plan for developing and building a “sleep center” within city limits. The proposed facility is drawn out at the Linn County mill property next to Sweet Home Public Works and would have 24-hour oversight, with at least two staffers always on hand.

The city is collaborating on the effort with the Lebanon-based FAC, which has secured a $150,000 grant and loosely allotted $50,000 of its general funds toward the project.

“We provide services to Linn County, but because of the deficiencies in east Linn, we are concentrating our efforts there, because there are very few solutions offered there,” FAC program manager Brock Byers said.

According to the presentation, the location would feature individualized shelters, RV and car parking and tent spots for nightly “emergencies,” overflow or “timeout” alternatives, restrooms, shower and laundry options, and a mailing address. It would also provide transportation access and be near vital community services, but “away from schools.”

Horton explained that homelessness is a growing community problem, and that there are no low-barrier sleeping accommodations in Linn County, or any shelters in east Linn County. Additionally, he said that U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit judges ruled in Martin vs. Boise (2018) that homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping in the absence of alternatives.

The presentation also highlighted a housing-first model, with services that focus on finding stability “as quickly as possible.” Horton emphasized the importance of helping people make permanent connections with FAC’s “continuum of care partners,” allowing the homeless to receive education, employment and social and emotional well-being.

He explained that the sleep center would be “innovative because it is the only one of its kind in the east Linn County area.” It would be modeled on the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless site in Washington, but operate under guidelines adopted by the City of Sweet Home and its leadership.

On Aug. 12, a contingency of councilors, city staff, and Community Health Committee members visited the Walla Walla center and spoke with its clients and site manager as well as the city’s government representatives.

“All of them said that this site was meeting their needs,” Horton said. “They said that their issues have declined tremendously since this facility was implemented.”

According to Horton, the site manager noted the rarity of problems and the lack of necessary police involvement. He added that clients felt people were listening to them for the first time.

Several citizens expressed opposition to the proposal.

David Yoakum of Cascadia, a retired public works employee from Antioch, California, said he watched that city “totally change when the city began to allow the homeless in.”

“If you guys bring in these homeless, it’s going to be drunks everywhere and disorderly conduct,” he said. “I’ve been there and I’ve watched the town degenerate that way.”

According to local resident Veronica Ellis, “Most generally people out on the street are there because that’s where they want to be. We don’t have the resources to support something like this. It’s going to be on the people, and we are barely scraping by as it is.”

She believed a sleep center would bring “undesirables” into town.

Josh Thorstad, also of Sweet Home, said, “With Kate Brown’s new mandates, there’s going to be a lot of homeless people in Sweet Home. I pay a lot of money in property taxes. It’s not my responsibility to pay for them.”

He told councilors that if they voted in favor of the center, “I’m warning all of you, I will refinance my home and sell my businesses. I will do everything I can to run against you and find somebody to replace you.”

Councilor Dylan Richards also voiced his opposition, recalling that The New Era interviewed homeless people in Sweet Home a few years ago, and “half of them said they enjoyed it, and it was their own choice.”

“I can’t support this, I’m not going to vote for it,” he added. “There are too many questions already. I don’t want the cost to taxpayers to be astronomical by any means.”

He then asked, “What’s stopping homeless from other areas from coming once we have this free stuff?”

Byers replied by outlining the facility’s 60-day residency clause, meaning that people would have to be Sweet Home residents for at least 60 days before being admitted. He also explained the concept of “low barrier” in relation to a sleep center.

“People tend to associate ‘low barrier’ with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “But really, it’s things like they have a pet, they don’t have proper ID. In this case, you would not have to be drug- and alcohol-free, but we would not allow drugs and alcohol on site.”

Horton noted that the Walla Walla site’s executive director successfully transitioned 48 clients from emergency shelter to transitional housing.

Dave Trask, one of the councilors who toured the center, said, “If you saw the pictures there, it is clean all the way inside. The huts are really small, they have no power, they can’t smoke, they can’t carry a gun or any of that. I don’t know what the best answer is here. But it’s going to cost money.

“We’re concerned about people coming from Lebanon and Brownsville,” he added. “But would we rather have them in a place like (Walla Walla’s center) or on the streets? I drove by the old City Hall, and there were five or six people laying there doing whatever they do, and that’s not good.”

This is a tough decision for us to make,” he continued. “One way or another there’s going to be some negative stuff. It’s painful going through this process.”

Gourley said she was “quite impressed” with the facility. 

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