Council supports homeless facility location

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home City Council voiced unanimous support on Jan. 11 for a “temporary managed homeless outreach and resource facility” being constructed in a fenced-in, paved area behind the back parking lot of City Hall, 3225 Main St.

The facility, which would be enclosed by a privacy fence, would feature 30 8-by-13-foot Conestoga Hut micro-shelters, as well as a mobile shower unit, office space for resources, and lighting.

According to Staff Engineer Joe Graybill’s “back of the napkin” estimate, site preparation – construction, a new fence and gates, utilities and new electrical infrastructure – would cost between $63,000 and $80,000. This does not include the cost of the huts.

But the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC), which would operate the facility in a manner agreeable to the city council by contract, has already allotted $403,500 in committed funds for the project and has applied for still more funding.

“The FAC has been out beating the pavement hard to get donations,” City Manager Ray Towry said. “If all the stars align, it looks as if the FAC is going to be able to supply the funding for this facility potentially at no cost to this community.”

After a pause, he said, “I can’t think of a better deal.”

Although the city’s Community Health Committee worked on plans for a Sweet Home facility through 2021, the City Hall area’s potential as a location is a recent consideration. For most of last year, the top choice had been 2.69 acres at the former Weyerhaeuser/Willamette Industries mill site east of Bi-Mart.

Linn County, which currently owns that land, went as far as holding a public hearing to give the acreage to the city. That changed around Christmas, when the county moved for a Phase 1 assessment to gauge the property’s environmental standing. According to Towry, city and county officials had initially overlooked the need for such an assessment in their “youthful enthusiasm” to move forward.

“We have discovered that that property was also a part of the old mill site, and has not been a part of the clean-up efforts,” he said. “We do not know how long it is going to take for that property to be given an NFA (no further action). It could be a matter of a couple months or a couple years before that property is available to us.”

Scrambling for other options, the Community Health Committee met Friday, Jan. 7, and determined that the area behind City Hall was the best location. The group presented a formal recommendation outlining this choice to the council.

“When the idea came up, I choked,” Councilor and Community Health Committee chair Lisa Gourley said. “I mean, I got a big stone in my throat. But when I started thinking about what they were saying, it made sense.”

“It doesn’t affect any surrounding neighbors, and it builds trust,” she continued. “And I think that’s really important, because that is what people have expressed – the fear of what this will create. But as long as we have control of the situation, then we can decide the destiny of this. And we can stop it at any time.”

The property, she added, has a “huge secure fence around it and is going to be well-supervised. And we can get this on the ground now, so we can focus on our downtown and move our city forward. I think we can move forward in a very positive way, and later reassess to see if this is working for us.”

Gourley saw improving Sweet Home’s main business throughfare as a motivation.

“One of the highest priorities I have is our downtown, and protecting our community that right now isn’t having their property and business rights protected,” she said. “We need to take action, and this is the quickest and least painful course of action that we have.”

“I think that this is a very manageable place for us to house this resource center,” Councilor Diane Gerson agreed. “I want to commend the people that have worked on this. It’s been a long haul. And I for one am not going to stand in the way of getting this done.”

Fellow councilor Susan Coleman echoed that sentiment.

 “I don’t think there’s any perfect location, but I think this concept fits the best to what we need,” she said. “A managed facility is something we’ve been aiming for. To clean up what needs to be cleaned up in our city and also assist people that need help, I think this is our best solution and our best foot forward.”

“I think this is a great opportunity,” Councilor Angelita Sanchez said, “and it builds trust within the community, and I support it being on City Hall property.”

Despite their “yes” votes, some of their colleagues expressed skepticism.

“I don’t like this,” Council Dave Trask said. “I don’t think anybody in this room likes it very much. But if we can make this work and have the ability to have the police get them out if they are making a mess, I think that for the time being it’s probably the best way to go.”

“I don’t think anyone really wants it there, but I feel like it’s our only option left,” Councilor Dylan Richards added.

The facility would be modeled in large part on the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless in Washington. Sweet Home city staff and councilors visited the center last August.

“Walla Walla has had tremendous success with this,” Towry said. “Keep in mind (that) Walla Walla is wine country. Their entire economy is based on tourism and having a pleasant downtown. And their business community couldn’t be happier, because you don’t see [homeless people] in their downtown area.”

“We really have no recourse without something in place,” Towry said. “Our police department’s hands are tied without a facility. We need to mitigate the impacts of homelessness on our community, and the only way that we as an organization can do that is if we have some place ready to go for them.”

He noted that the city’s efforts to improve public parks would be hampered without such a facility.

“We have invested a lot of time and effort into making Sankey Park a place where people want to spend time, and the police department wouldn’t have any ability to enforce camping ordinances if we do nothing,” he said.

In 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds available for their homeless population.

“We have taken an oath to follow the laws,” Gourley added. “And our police officers are stuck in this situation where they can’t move people along, because it is against the law to do that unless we provide a facility.”

Towry emphasized that the relatively unmanaged camp near the old City Hall is not ideal for anyone. He said that a week before the meeting, “[a] person’s tent caught on fire, and they lost everything they had. Surprisingly, a few days later that same person almost had another fire outside their new tent.”

“Nobody’s advocating for an unmanaged facility,” he continued. “A managed facility would look quite different. It’s orderly, it’s clean and it has rules, which would include no alcohol or drugs inside the facility.”

According to Gourley, the city has long considered options to fight its homeless crisis.

“It is not a new issue,” she said. “We’ve had this problem for years, and it’s getting worse. And it’s not going to go away. As people come into Sweet Home, we have a problem with putting our best foot forward. You know that when you look at the communities that are being successful, their Main Street looks better than ours. Part of the problem is that we have people who are not housed and are having issues and are in crisis, and that is in people’s faces when they come into town.”

FAC Program Manager Brock Byers said that the resource center would benefit many people.

“It’s not just services for the homeless – we provide other services for your community,” he said. “We do a lot of consulting with the elderly. And we work with our partners to provide your community resources, not just the homeless. Once this is all set up and going, services will be provided to people that need it. And we have many people in Sweet Home who are just one paycheck away from being homeless themselves. If we can keep them housed by providing more services than we currently do, then our community is going to be stronger and healthier.”

In other action:

— The council voted 6-0 to execute a contract with Pacific Excavation for a “Water Treatment Plant Finished Water and Backwash Pumping Improvements Project” at the Sweet Home Water Treatment Plant. (Council Angelita Sanchez abstained because her Angel’s Rock N’ Roll Construction Inc. firm is on Pacific Excavation’s trucking list).

Built in 2008, the 17,280-square-foot facility features three finished pumps that send potable water into the distribution network. Currently, abrupt on/off cycles send water hammer (a pressure surge) throughout the network, damaging the city’s aged and aging pipes and contributing to new leaks, according to a request for council action (RCA) submitted by Utilities Manager Steven Haney and Public Works Director Greg Springman.

Proposed improvements include the installation of variable frequency drives on the finished pumps, which would allow operators to control their speed. The RCA stated this would soften the on/off cycles, eliminating the water hammer source and allowing operators to run two pumps at partial speeds for a desired flow rate.

The project would also address an issue in the water treatment plant’s filter backwash system, which currently draws water from the distribution network to clean the filters. It starts and stops abruptly, which causes a water hammer that is measurable citywide in the distribution system, according to the RCA.

The proposed improvement would install a pump to provide backwash water out of the clearwell instead of the distribution network. This action would eliminate the water-hammer source, the RCA stated.

The council authorized bids for the project in November. Seven were received. The low bidder was Pacific Excavation, with a bid of $273,800.

The city has $520,000 budgeted for this project. The engineer’s estimate is $504,000. The Automation Group, the city’s integrator of record, has already ordered $158,384 of equipment.

— The council voted unanimously to rescind a resolution passed in October 2020 that gave Sweet Home’s old City Hall annex to the city of Detroit to aid in its recovery from that year’s merged Beachie Creek, Lionshead and P-515 wildfires, which burned more than 190,000 acres between mid-August and late October.

After the resolution passed, representatives from both cities struggled to find someone to move the building.

By the time that happened, Detroit indicated that the building was no longer needed.

According to a request for council action submitted by City Attorney Robert Snyder, Sweet Home now plans to move the annex to the site of a future homeless facility, where it can be used for office/meeting space where social services can be provided.

— The council voted unanimously to enter into an agreement with the Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in order for the SBDC to conduct training and business advising programs for Sweet Home entrepreneurs and small businesses in exchange for $2,500 in financial assistance from the city.

Effective in 2019-20, the agreement lapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic. SBDC requested its renewal. The city has already negotiated and budgeted $2,500 for this arrangement.

— A new officer, Tyler Robinson of Lebanon, was sworn in to the Sweet Home Police Department. He began his career with the department on Dec. 27, 2021.

Tyler grew up in Linn County and attended Linn-Benton Community College and Western Oregon University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. He has volunteer and paid experience as a reserve and marine deputy with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.

— The council unanimously approved an updated library policy manual for the Sweet Home Public Library. The Library Advisory Board reviewed it at their Dec. 9, 2021, meeting and unanimously voted to recommend adoption by the city council.

Library services director Megan Dazey said that updates make it easier for new town arrivals to sign up for library cards, and lower the minimum age requirement from seven to five years old.

— A community development block grant co-sponsored by the city in 2019 is now complete. Eighteen Lebanon, Sweet Home and rural Linn County projects were undertaken as part of the grant.

In spite of COVID-related delays and shutdowns, DevNW provided $377,871 in block-grant funds for construction, including ten grants to homeowners in parks. Work included roofing, siding, windows, doors, bathroom repairs and remodels, plumbing repairs and upgrades.