Local leaders discuss options for homeless

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home Community Health Committee batted around different ideas for dealing with the issue of homelessness at their monthly meeting Monday, Feb. 22.

Discussions centered around the possibility of building small structures to benefit Sweet Home’s homeless population.

The current homeless encampment at the Church of Nazarene, which consists of an array of tents, has gone up and down in population since it was first established, said committee member Larry Horton. At one point the number of people living in the encampment rose to above 20. Most recently, that number is down to 14, Horton said.

The encampment was originally designed as an emergency cold weather shelter. The last day it will potentially remain at the church is March 31, with the possibility that it will be taken down sooner.

“I don’t think anybody wants the tents where they are,” Horton said. “But we were down to where the cold weather was coming and there was nothing there. So the tent city came up.”

Brock Byers, program manager for the Family Assistance and Resource Center Group, indicated that the current state of affairs behind the church would not be a very viable option, long term.

“Tents don’t last. They’re temporary. I’m amazed they last as long as they do. I don’t know if you go camping with your family in tents but usually it’s a weekend or two, and not for days on end, straight,” he said.

“We do go through quite a few tents,” Byers said of the encampment.

Sweet Home Mayor Greg Mahler, who was present at the meeting, put forth the idea of building structures that would be more permanent than tents and provide a more favorable living arrangement for Sweet Home’s homeless, after talking with certain individuals about the matter.

“Some people might look at it as a shed. I don’t look at it as a shed. I look at it as a little tiny home.”

The tiny homes he described would be built on platforms that sit on top of pallets. They would have a lockable door, perhaps one or two windows, ventilation, and a roof. The benefit to building them on pallets is that these structures could be easily moved.

Mahler said he talked to an individual about the potential for donations to be put toward this project.

“What they were saying is you could probably get donations. You could probably get people to step up on this to where it wouldn’t cost anything, to be honest with you.”

Mahler said he’s heard that these structures could be built for somewhere between $500-$750 a piece.

Horton says he thinks a lot of volunteers would step up to the plate to help build such structures.

“We had an army down there [at the church] building the 20 pallets. And I know we could get another army there to build structures. I don’t have any doubt about that,” he said.

While specific locations for a potential encampment were not discussed at the meeting, Mahler said he’d spoken with certain individuals and “we had a location that was acceptable to the city, especially with what we’re trying to accomplish from an economic development side of things.”

“This is a ‘take care of our own,'” Mahler said of the issue. “It’s not to put a sign on the end of town and say ‘y’all homeless that live in Albany, Salem, whatever, come on up to Sweet Home; we’ll take care of you.’ That’s where I’m willing to draw the line and say ‘I don’t think so.’ But I’m all for taking care of our people, that are in our community and have been in our community.”

“No open invitations,” Horton reiterated.

Mahler commented on the homeless situation he has witnessed in Salem.

“You want to see something that scares the crap out of you? Go up to Salem and get off of Mission. I would not want to see Sweet Home look like that. It is extremely bad. It is beyond bad,” he said.

Horton added, “Almost any off-ramp of I-5, you’re gonna see a tent city. I would much rather see a tiny home, some kind of a structure where these people can stay. It would be better for them to stay in.”

Mahler made his stance on the matter clear. “I know a lot of the citizens in this community are not for homeless camps. That’s not what I’m trying to advocate. I’m trying to take care of the problem we have. There’s a difference.”

“I think everybody in this room has compassion as to the problem and the situation,” he said. And I don’t think necessarily the directive is to kick everybody out and say ‘Leave town, goodbye.’ We know that everybody’s hard up, and there’s problems we have to face.”