Homeless facility discussion continues at special meeting

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home City Hall hosted a special meeting Thursday, Sept. 9, to discuss a proposed homeless facility on Linn County-owned property behind the Bi-Mart, next to Sweet Home Public Works.

Community Health Committee members, in collaboration with the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC), have developed a plan modeled largely on a Walla Walla, Wash., homeless shelter representatives have now visited three times.

The local proposal calls for a fence around the center’s perimeter and a check-in/check-out gate. No alcohol, drugs or weapons would be allowed in the facility, which would be managed at all times by at least two personnel. On-site service providers could offer aid, helping clients find and apply for jobs, find residency in more permanent housing if possible and deal with physical or mental health issues. A seven-member panel of area residents would be responsible for the facility’s operational decisions.

The Walla Walla site features large trash bins with locks, 52 modest huts for housing, and a shower and toilet. According to Sweet Home City Manager Ray Towry, it helped place 45 of its 182 clients in permanent housing last year.

While an overall proposed budget was not available for consideration at the Sept. 9 meeting, it was noted that the FAC had received $150,000 in grant money toward the project, along with $50,000 in the organization’s general fund remaining from last year.

Many people mentioned the Sweet Home Police Department’s current inability to take effective legal action in removing the homeless from certain areas because of a 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court decision, which held that cities couldn’t enforce anti-camping ordinances if there weren’t enough available shelter beds. That decision, commonly referred to as Martin v. Boise, was based on the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

In recent weeks, homeless people have established residence in the parking lot across from the Sweet Home Public Library. When a Farmer’s Market takes place in the location from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, they move to a lot behind the old City Hall building at the behest of the police and public works departments.

Last week, however, there was some resistance to returning to the spot near the library, according to Towry. In response, city staff let the homeless remain behind the old City Hall “until we can figure something else out,” Towry said. The result: a large mess.

“This popped up within the last two days,” Police Chief Jeff Lynn said at the meeting. “It’s an absolute trainwreck back there. We’ve been responding to rectify it.”

Public Works Director Greg Springman explained that over the last couple of months, his department has spent around $3,300 on cleanup – which includes sweeping the parking lot and surrounding streets, and pressure-washing concrete – and costs have recently averaged $450 per week. Because of concrete’s porous nature, he added, “feces and urine soak in. So there’s probably some current damage.” Also, needles have been discovered.

“It’s daily,” he said. “And if we didn’t clean up daily, it would be worse.”

Although the number of homeless makes up less than half of a percent of the city’s total population, according to Lynn, it’s responsible for more than 9% of the police department’s call-load.

“We’ve got to find an option,” he said. “I don’t think what we are doing now is a legitimate option. I think we need a more controlled setting.”

He described last winter’s homeless encampment at the Church of Nazarene as a learning experience for the city.

“Everyone being in a central location really benefited the outreach aspect,” Lynn said, adding that a number of people began a “path of improvement” as a result of the church’s efforts. “We were really able to connect and break down barriers with individuals.”

However, he said, “None of us are going to sit here and say that was a success. The people trying to run [the encampment] were significantly limited on their resources. And there were no rules, missions or defined outcomes. It was simply an effort to help people stay warm during the winter, during COVID.”

After the encampment was dismantled, he said, “Most of the service agencies will indicate that they saw a decline in follow-through and connection with individuals. We have to do something to protect public spaces, our downtown core and property rights of those who own properties in the area. Nuisance complaints and livability concerns follow the homeless around. If we can come up with a solution that is rules-driven, I think it has a chance to have success.

“Walla Walla has succeeded because there are rules,” he continued. “Not everyone will follow those rules, and those individuals will be asked to leave. But that doesn’t give them a right to sleep wherever they want. It allows the police to police again. This would give us the ability to say, ‘You had an opportunity [to stay at the shelter].’ I think that’s huge. And that’s what we do not have right now.”

“Homelessness has always been with us, but it has exploded,” said Councilor Lisa Gourley, an active participant in Community Health Committee meetings. “Oregon has been No. 1 for people to move to. Rent and home prices have skyrocketed. We have people in this town that have had their rents upped, and landlords have kicked people out on the street. We have people on the street who aren’t long-timers, but rather had a bad relationship or something else happen to them.

“These aren’t career homeless people,” she added, although she allowed that some of the city’s homeless population have, in fact, lived on the streets for a long time.

“We are talking about filth in the right-of-way,” she said. “The mess is tremendous. We have a tent-city situation. We have to stop it with the tools that we can [use]. If we had a homeless shelter and people can’t behave, we don’t have to let them sleep in the right-of-way in town. We would have more control and more say over what goes on in our city. Because of these rulings, [Martin vs. Boise, and others] we don’t have that say now.”

“I think this is as good as it gets, if our real goal is to get people off the street and back into housing,” Gourley continued. “We are not providing heat, just a place to rest people’s heads safely at night. I don’t know that we can do anything better. This is better than what Salem’s doing. It’s better than what a lot of people are doing, and it’s within our means.”

Mayor Greg Mahler said that although he’s “not begrudging” local churches for “doing what they can to help people,” he said he’s noticed more homeless people in the area since these sanctuaries began distributing breakfast, lunch, dinner and free clothing. He also mentioned seeing many grocery carts in their possession.

“Grocery carts start out at about $300 a piece,” he said. “And the carts are the main way some of these homeless people are moving their supplies. I think it’s time for [some local businesses] to say ‘Enough is enough’ with the grocery carts. A grocery cart out on the streets is stolen property, and they are getting more and more expensive.”

Councilor Diane Gerson asked, “Is this a culture that we want to have in our community? I don’t think so. We should do something.”

Councilor Dave Trask mentioned concerns about the plan, including a potential surge of people coming from Albany, Lebanon or Brownsville. He also questioned where the city would get the funds for its contribution to the project and asked, “If we come up with the money, are we going to have to maintain that for the rest of our lives?”

However, he added, “We have to do something. Legally, we have to.”

Addressing one of Trask’s points, Towry said, “We are all really concerned about the ‘If you build it, they will come’ question. But every community is now doing something. Lebanon is working on building a facility. So there won’t really be a reason for people to be coming here. If you are looking to get services, we probably offer a lot less services for people in need than all of our neighboring communities. So would I foresee a lineup of people? I wouldn’t say that, by any means.”

He touted Walla Walla’s gracious nature during the development of the Sweet Home proposal, saying that officials from the Washington city gave three facility tours, answered phone calls, and shared data with Sweet Home city staff, community members and councilors. Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain spent a half-day with Sweet Home representatives on one tour.

“There is no true 100% solution to these issues,” he added. “Homelessness is a wicked problem in so many different ways. Our goal is to mitigate the impact of homeless for the unhoused and for the community, and find that sweet spot in the middle.”