‘Sleep center’ discussion continues

Benny Westcott

After more than a year of discussion and, more recently, two back-to-back meetings held Jan. 25 and 26 (with another this week), the hot-button homeless “sleep center” conversation continues.

The Sweet Home City Council on Jan. 25 tabled a vote on a terms-of-service agreement with the Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC), as well as a lease that would give the 3225 Main Street property behind City Hall to the Lebanon-based nonprofit for the facility.

The vote was moved to a special City Council meeting scheduled for 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1, (after The New Era’s press time). The session is open to the public. 

Councilors Greg Mahler, Dave Trask, Angelita Sanchez and Dylan Richards elected on Jan. 25 to table the decision. Fellow members Lisa Gourley and Diane Gerson voted no. Due to a personal matter, Sarah Coleman was not in attendance.

FAC representatives, who have worked alongside city staff and council members at Community Health Committee meetings over the last year, want the nonprofit to own the property, upon which they hope to construct a managed outreach and community resource facility. Its primary purpose would be to provide shelter and services to Sweet Home’s unhoused population. Enclosed by a privacy fence, it would feature 28 8-by-13-foot Conestoga Hut micro-shelters, as well as a mobile shower unit, office space for resources, and lighting, plus security cameras and 24-hour security guards.

The impasse came after several present Duck Hollow neighborhood residents voiced opposition to the sleep center near their properties. Based on a blueprint, the closest home would be approximately 345 feet from its fence, with several homes within a 600-foot radius.

Leia Landrock, who lives on 40th Avenue, expressed concern about a potential increase in police calls, explaining that Walla Walla, Wash., was similarly plagued in the spring of 2019, when its Alliance for the Homeless Sleep Center was installed in a commercial area.

Landrock noted that the area around the facility experienced a 2,766.49% jump in police calls between April 25, 2019, and May 25, 2021, as compared to the two-year period between 2000 and 2001, long before the center’s construction. The pre-facility era saw one call to the area every 48.7 days, while one call every 1 to 7 days occurred in its lifetime.

These statistics held particular relevance for the council, as some of its members had visited the Walla Walla center in the summer of 2021 for insight on its operation, and the FAC designed much of Sweet Home’s site plan based on its model.

“Our homes are only 345 feet from the proposed fence, which is more than 50% closer to the shelter than the 700-foot radius impacted in these reports,” Landrock said. “We are too close to this, and we do not want this so close to our homes and children. If you give us the time, I believe we can get signatures or whatever it is you would ask of us, so we can stop this from happening.”

She added that a Nov. 29, 2021, fire that damaged a warehouse was believed to have originated at a homeless encampment near the facility. “This indicates that there are still pockets of illegal camps in Walla Walla,” she said.

Her resistance to the Sweet Home proposal was to its location, she added, not a desire to neglect the overall issue. She explained that she was homeless once, living in her car for several weeks, and that her 56-year-old brother still suffered the same plight. “He will tell you it is by choice,” she said, “because he prefers that to the drudgery of mortgages, utility bills and the drudgery of a nine-to-five job.”

“If you trust in the fence and the rules that much, and really think that will protect our neighborhood, please put it at the old city hall site,” Landrock told the council. “Because either the fence and rules work, or they don’t. But don’t use our neighborhood as a test. Because we live here 24/7. And a lot of us are retired and are literally there 24/7.”

Fellow resident Christine Rogers also opposed the facility.

“Using a current camp [in Walla Walla] as a model should include looking at the lessons they learned along the way to ensure Sweet Home doesn’t make the same mistakes,” she said.

Rogers noted that Walla Walla’s city officials moved a temporary sleep center from a more residential area to its current location after neighborhood representatives raised a number of issues at a March 22, 2017, city council meeting. These problems included the disturbance of garbage and personal property, intoxicated wanderers and hypodermic needles in lawns and private trash cans. A bloody-faced man allegedly knocked on a resident’s window one night, and a U.S. postal carrier was reportedly found bleeding after being assaulted.

Following these testimonies, the city listed “the most minimal impact as possible to residential, commercial and public use” as being among “primary criteria” in selecting the center’s current, more industrial site, according to an April 16, 2017, story in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin.

Rogers reached out to Walla Walla City Councilwoman Susan Nakonieczny for insight. Nakonieczny replied, “In my opinion, a homeless shelter should not be in a residential neighborhood, due to the type of behavior that is associated with homelessness.”

“If a homeless camp is not appropriate to have next to a school, it should not be appropriate to border a neighborhood,” Rogers said. “Our children are not any less important than others. Our neighborhood, or any other neighborhood, should not be considered acceptable collateral damage to improve the downtown situation.”

Vicki Sele also addressed the Sweet Home council, noting that her “backyard looks directly at where the homeless camp is supposed to be.” She said that she went to the current unmanaged camp behind the old city hall and determined that “most of them don’t want to come down here.” One of the camp’s residents reportedly told her, “Oh, you mean the place that will be like a jail, but no heat, no TV and no three meals a day?” Several people, she added, said they’d be back at the old city hall’s “camp” after the construction of a new facility.

Sele also objected to the proposed location’s distance from services. “They won’t be able to get to Safeway, Speedee, Thriftway. Places where they can grab food and water,” she said, adding that she’s given sustenance and dog supplies to Sweet Home’s homeless population for “years and years,” the most prominent being the late James “Jammers” Washington, who died Jan. 14.

“I think if you guys want to do something, clean up the downtown buildings first,” Sele said.

Builder Ernie Carpenter threatened to end local construction if the facility went up behind City Hall. He’s currently building 40 units to provide housing for 80 people near the location and has submitted preliminary plans for 80 more units as part of an additional phase.

“If you think I want this next door to me, you’re crazy,” he said. “So make a choice. Either more housing, or no housing. Bottom line. I will not build anymore out here. I will pull out of your city.”

“I know this is all well-intentioned,” 41st Avenue resident Rochelle James said. “However, I think it will become more than the city is going to be able to handle. And I don’t know how you can assure everybody that that’s not going to happen.”

North River Drive resident Caterina Runnfeldt, who’s also the office manager at Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, LLC, Construction Services, which would be involved in building the project’s Conestoga huts, struck a different note. She talked about visiting the Nightingale Community Shelter at 34th Alley and Hilyard Street in Eugene, located near a Mr. Rogers client. She described it as being “right in the middle of the neighborhood, a block from the school, that has been there for four-and-a-half years.” After speaking to members of a homeowners association near the shelter, she said, “They had no complaints, none at all.”

Runnfeldt also wondered why the Duck Hollow neighborhood’s fears weren’t already coming true in the residential areas around the old city hall. “The homeless population that you have would be doing that in the neighboring avenues that are near the city council’s old spot now,” she said. “And if they are not doing that there, why would they do that here, just a few blocks away?”

Councilor Angelita Sanchez said that after hearing community input, “based upon the testimony and evidence that was presented today, we should table this until the next meeting after we have our town hall.”

Gerson, who dissented from that decision, said, “We have looked at a ton of alternatives. The city doesn’t own much property. We’re not in the real-estate business. We don’t have any private property owners who have been willing to step up. We have 37 churches in town. Some of them have lots of tax-exempt property, but nobody has stepped up. I really do want to work with the community, but we don’t have many options.”

The conversation spilled over to a community meeting (the “town hall” mentioned by Sanchez), designed specifically as a forum to further discuss the issue, the following evening at City Hall. Four city councilors, a number of city staffers and more than a dozen community members attended.

“This is a situation that nobody wants to be in,” City Manager Ray Towry said. “Nobody wants to deal with these issues. But the reality is, they’re staring at us in the face.”

He said that taxpayers have already paid well over $100,000 to mitigate the community’s homelessness issue, although they might not know it, and explained his caution regarding the sleep center plan.

“I can recall very specifically a meeting [in the City Hall’s conference room] in which people wanted to open a resource center, and I probably stepped over the line and said, ‘No, we are not just going to throw money at this and waste it when we can’t see that there is going to be success on the other end,'” he said. “So we kept looking until we came up with some kind of a template that the health committee felt was applicable to our situation and the resources that we have.”

Towry emphasized the importance of the city’s partnership with FAC.

“Government is not good at this,” he said. “The city of Seattle: millions of dollars, failed. The city of Portland: millions of dollars, failed. The city of Eugene: millions of dollars, failed. You can go down the list. Places that have been successful have engaged with other agencies and nonprofits.”

He said that the city has focused on improving its parks, and that a new facility would help prevent people from camping in them. According to Towry, the Sweet Home Police Department walked through Sankey Park every morning to remove campers, then returned at night to kick them out. The city’s code enforcement officer made foot patrols once a day.

“It took a lot of effort, time and community support,” he said. “We don’t want it to go back to what it was, and we don’t want to see that anywhere in the community.”

Towry explained that the Community Health Committee initially wanted 2.69 acres of the former Weyerhaeuser/Willamette Industries mill site east of Bi-Mart for the sleep center, but that plan was thwarted – at least temporarily – when Linn County, which owns the property, moved for an assessment to gauge the parcel’s environmental standing late last year.

Explaining the city’s hesitation to take over the property itself by striking a deal with the county, Towry said that the site doesn’t have specific Department of Environmental Quality designation or an agreement.

“If you own a piece of property that DEQ has determined is environmentally unclean, you are liable for the cleanup of that property in perpetuity,” he said. “You may meet the DEQ and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] requirements in 2022, but if their requirements change in 2042, because you own that property you are required to be involved in bringing its pollution levels to whatever mitigation DEQ says. You are never out from under that weight, so to speak.”

Towry said that after learning the former mill site wouldn’t be available, the Community Health Committee hurried to select another. City staff even contacted some private property owners but received no interest.

“We worked hard to find another site quickly so we could get people housed and sheltered through the cold weather,” he said.

He acknowledged the recent passing of James “Jammers” Washington and added that another member of the homeless community was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. In yet another instance, a tent caught fire, an unfortunate consequence of an effort to stay warm.

“We’re trying to do something quickly to be humane,” Towry said. “That’s what’s gotten us to this point. Nobody in this instance is bad. It’s kind of normal human psychology to try to create a bad guy in a situation. But that’s not the case here. Everyone is trying to do the best they can within the rules that we are being forced to play under.” 

He mentioned the 2018 United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which ruled that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they lack enough shelter beds for their homeless population.

“What we’re not trying to do is put it there, dump it, and leave you stranded,” Towry said. “That is not the goal. This is a temporary site. We are not thinking that this is a permanent site. If we determine that there’s a better location, everything being done here can be picked up and moved and taken somewhere else. We are hoping that this is not permanent.”

He expressed hope for the site’s success, particularly its management. Speaking of the Walla Walla facility’s subculture, he said, “Them having their own space inside a hut is highly valuable. They found that if somebody did violate rules or procedures, simply telling someone that they had to leave the hut and go to the overflow where they had to share space, was a huge lever for them to help affect change in the way these people act.”

But problems, he admitted, were inevitable.

“This is going to be something that’s always in motion,” he said. “A continual learning type of a thing. When issues pop up, it’s going to be a constant learning cycle. Things are going to go wrong, and we’re going to have to fix the problems.”

Police Chief Jeff Lynn also expressed support for the city, although he confessed that he wouldn’t have at the beginning of his tenure.

“Nine years ago, when I first became chief, if you asked me if I was going to be advocating for some type of homeless center, the answer would have been ‘Absolutely not,'” he said. “But that is how drastic the playing field has changed for law enforcement in dealing with homelessness.”

“I can’t say it’s going to run peacefully and it’s going to be a perfect situation, because I guarantee it’s not going to be,” he continued. “We are going to have issues there. A certain percentage of our calls will follow wherever our unhoused population is. We are going to have calls for service, because that is the type of individuals that we will be dealing with, regardless of where they are at.

“I’ll be honest with you, I could stand up here in three or six months and say, ‘This was a horrible idea.’ I’ve done that before on different topics. I put my backing behind the Nazarene Church [homeless facility] and at the end of it I was like ‘This was a horrible idea, and I can’t believe I thought this was going to work.’ I hope and I pray that is not what happens here. And I have a lot of faith in the FAC and their team, because they really want it to work.”

The chief said that the Walla Walla Police Department representatives he contacted emphasized that what lowered their call load and led to the city sleep center’s overall success were strictly enforced rules and regulations, resources for the homeless and its 24-hour operation.

“I believe that we have a chance to really be a focal point in how a small community can address homelessness,” Lynn said, adding that he understands residents’ “not in my backyard” sentiment.

Duck Hollow Homeowner Association President Eric Stutzer expressed approval of FAC’s managed facility idea, but didn’t agree with its location.

“I think that the idea that FAC has is unbelievable. It’s one of the better ones that I’ve heard,” he said. “But I’m a realist, and I understand that there’s going to be spillover into the community, and some of that we can’t necessarily mitigate. And we have to take those things into consideration when we are considering placement. Great idea, just maybe the wrong location, from what I see.

“I am very concerned about the spillover into our neighborhood. We are extremely close. The facility itself isn’t really the issue, but rather, what are they going to do when they aren’t in the facility?

“The reality of the matter is that people are creatures of habit and they have a nature to them. I don’t think human nature is going to allow them to just sit [in the facility] all the time. They’re going to move out, they’re going to be looking for things to do. They’re going to get bored. This isn’t a place that’s going to have an entertainment system. If it were me, I would be out in the field. I would be going through the apartment complexes that are coming in. And you have to keep in mind that you’re within walking distance from an elementary school, so there’s a huge concern on my part that you could have registered sex offenders living here, but we’re not far from an elementary school. That kind of scares me a little bit.”