Group considers interim fix for homeless population

Benny Westcott

With colder weather and proposed “sleep center” plans for Sweet Home’s homeless population in flux (Linn County has not weighed in on its intentions and the Sweet Home city council hasn’t voted on it yet), officials and citizens gathered Monday, Oct. 18, for a Community Health Committee meeting at Sweet Home City Hall to discuss a possible interim solution: the north side of the Sweet Home Police Department’s property.

Police Chief Jeff Lynn said a fenced area could serve homeless people “in the short term, over the winter.”

However, that depended on daily involvement from the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center Group (FAC). Lynn reported that both FAC founder/administrator Shirley Byrd and program manager Brock Byers were interested in moving forward but had yet to consult their board of directors.

If the proposal came to fruition, he warned, “It can’t exist like it did at Nazarene Church,” referring to the homeless encampment established last winter at that location. “It needs to be organized, rule-based and structured.” Were it placed on police department property, Lynn said, “We need a large say in how it would be set up.”

“There would be some expense to it,” he said, explaining that the site could be equipped with fencing, lighting and cameras. “How we would pay for that is beyond my pay grade.”

A group of homeless people currently resides in the former City Hall’s parking lot, a scenario Lynn described as “not ideal.” Such individuals also set up elsewhere, but he felt that concentrating the population in one area would make the best solution from a law-enforcement perspective, particularly in providing needed services.

Some discussions have involved adapting the old City Hall parking lot to make it more suitable in the colder months, but the chief described it as a “terrible location.” “I’m not sure an organization could be successful stepping into that and running it right now,” he said.

In addition, he noted that homeless people have twice vacated the premises to allow the Sweet Home Fire District to use the building for training. The department needed the lot’s parking facility, Lynn explained, for vehicles and equipment.

Community Health Committee member Larry Horton expressed frustration at the slow progress of “sleep center” plans at county-owned property near Bi-Mart (known as the “knife property” because of its shape).

“We’ve been talking about it for months and months and months and nothing has happened,” he said. “Something’s going to have to happen, as winter is fast approaching. I mean, it’s cold out there tonight.”

He proposed using the property for the homeless in the near future.

“We could probably get cameras and lighting out there without a whole lot of expense,” he said. “And it would be on black top, which would be drier and cleaner than setting it on mud.”

“I was told that’s not an option in the short term,” Lynn replied. “Without some upgrades, you’d be setting FAC up for more difficulty and possible failures.”

Councilor Lisa Gourley said that the situation at the old City Hall “is not working out, and it’s not fair to people who live down there and the businesses down there.”

But committee member Bob Dalton mentioned the possibility of “a group of homeless here that probably don’t want to be around authoritative figures,” noting the potential of “losing half the group” by moving them to the police department’s property. 

“There’s never going to be an ideal, perfect place,” he conceded. “Wherever it is, there’s going to be a group of people that throw rocks at it and are part of the problem instead of the solution.”

A letter submitted to Linn County commissioners outlines the “sleep center” project on the “knife property,” Lynn said. He added that City Manager Ray Towry has been working on organizing a meeting with the city council and the county commissioners on a date amenable to all parties.