Council reserved in response to request for ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ support

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home City Council members last week declined to write a letter of endorsement for a new local charity, Love Thy Neighbor Services; but the council did offer to facilitate a community meeting to allow the community to weigh in on the organization’s plans.

Love Thy Neighbor Services is pursuing a pair of grants this month and sought the letter to show community support for the project.

The wide-ranging project includes several phases and programs designed to help poor working families, drug addicts and teenagers, to fill in the gaps among services that are already provided by other private and public organization.

Love Thy Neighbor Services was created to help people in Sweet Home, a place where 68 percent of the population is economically disadvantaged, 24 percent of children live at or below the poverty level and 34 percent of families are single-parent, according to information the organization provided to the council during a special meeting held Nov. 29 to consider whether to write the letter.

Love Thy Neighbor’s goals are “to prevent hopelessness and homelessness.”

To that end, the group plans to use Home Sweet Home Cafe, 1333 Main St., as a fund-raising tool and to provide job training and work experience programs to help people gain job skills. A second Love Thy Neighbor effort, “The Hangout,” would provide training and work experience to preteens and teens.

Local resident Kathy Wiens said Home Sweet Home Cafe is already working with Linn-Benton Community College to provide one of these positions. Wiens spearheaded the creation of Love Thy Neighbor last year.

It will provide up to six jobs to start and grow to 12 to 15 full-time positions, according to the information packet Wiens provided to the council, and it would provide food to the hungry and homeless.

The Sweet Home community is in need of a safe and fun social environment for preteens and teens. The group plans to offer The Hangout to provide that. Organizers hope to use the former site of Rita’s Relics when they secure funding.

The Hangout would include a game room, a study room with access to computers for school work and accredited online school access. The program would teach life skills and provide a health meal program in the evenings and weekends as well as shower and laundry services. A health program would provide medical, dental, mental and substance abuse services.

The first two phases of the Love Thy Neighbor project include these two programs and applications for grants. If they are successful in winning grants, members of Love They Neighbor want to purchase land in a third phase and begin developing additional programs, including a “Healing House,” transitional housing for older women who have no resources, are at risk or are homeless. It includes no faith-based requirements and helps the women work toward self-sufficiency.

Additional plans include a community garden, showers for the homeless, laundry services for members of all the programs and an outpatient methadone maintenance treatment clinic to help fight homelessness and provide mental illness support.

Wiens said that in general, doctors had prescribed opiates for pain for years, driving an increase in the number of people addicted to opiates.

Recently, they have stopped prescribing them as often, and many patients have turned to illegal opiates to satisfy their addictions, she said.

Opiate addiction is a problem in average households, Wiens said.

When the clinic opens, organizers expect to serve 100 to 170 patients in the Albany, Brownsville, Lebanon and Sweet Home areas.

These kinds of clinics are highly successful, Wiens said, adding that the only ones in the area are in Eugene and Salem, and they are “overloaded.”

Patients will be transported by medical transport services, said Amanda Foss, who owns Home Sweet Home Cafe and is a board member with Love Thy Neighbor. After treatment, they return to their homes and do not stay in the community.

“It’s for the average, everyday community member,” Foss told The New Era, responding to public concerns last week, following the council meeting, that homeless and addicts would be transported to Sweet Home as part of the clinic program.

Statistically, Sweet Home itself has 100 people addicted to opiates, Foss said.

The clinic would provide counseling, with services in addiction recovery, life skills and family healing.

The council was reluctant to write a letter of endorsement prior to hearing from the community, although Wiens said she has many volunteers lined up to get The Hangout going and get involved in the organization as it grows. She said it has already raised some $251,000 in in-kind work and donations.

But the council had a different take.

“I haven’t heard one person ask me about this program,” said Councilor Dave Trask. He explained that he hears from the public about almost everything. City Council meetings are the only time he’s heard anything about this program.

Wiens said she has been talking to people for more than a year, and she has been getting all kinds of support.

“Part of our problem is that we have 9,000 residents out there that may not agree with this program,” said Mayor Jim Gourley. “I think the timing sucks. The community has to be involved.”

Yet people out in the community are saying the community needs programs like these, Wiens said.

“It would be better to come in here with a stack of people supporting it,” suggested Councilor James Goble, who said he agrees that Sweet Home needs programs like these.

“I don’t believe it’s a city issue,” Gourley said.

But councilors said they would attend or even facilitate a public meeting so they could hear what the public thinks about it.

“We’re involved a little too early in the process,” said Councilor Greg Mahler.

The council voted 5-0 to have the city facilitate a meeting at a date to be determined to determine the public interest in a clinic.

Present at the meeting were Goble, Mahler, Gourley, Trask and Diane Gerson.

Ryan Underwood and Jeff Goodwin were absent.