A small row of tents on the Cottage Grove Community Center property has raised the eyebrows of some in the community.
A few weeks ago, the City of Cottage Grove made accommodations for a handful of homeless individuals in the area by establishing a small relief site situated in the back of the center. The site was equipped with canopies provide a temporary shelter space.
“This is not going to be the permanent solution,” said City Manager Richard Meyers. “This is just temporary as we’re trying to address some of the other issues.”
The site is part of an active step the city has taken in addressing homelessness in Cottage Grove.
The reasons for the move are manifold, starting with a court decision almost two years ago.
A Dec. 16, 2019, U.S. Supreme Court decision to deny a petition to review Martin v. City of Boise finalized a significant holding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which protects the right for homeless people to sleep in public spaces without reprisal.
The Circuit Court ruling held that if a homeless person has no option of sleeping indoors, a city cannot cite or punish him or her for violating an ordinance disallowing sleeping outside in a public space.
Governor Kate Brown also signed into law House Bill 3115 this year.
The law mandates that any city or county law must be reasonable if it regulates “sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property.”
Under the measure, a homeless person charged with violating a ban on camping or loitering would have an affirmative defense against a law that is not objectively reasonable. A person experiencing homelessness may also sue to challenge the objective reasonableness of a city or county law, and be awarded attorney fees if the plaintiff prevails.
However, this bill will not take effect until July 1, 2023.
In the meantime, the Circuit Court ruling stands.
Beyond legal reasons, though, Meyers invoked a basic appeal to humanity.
“They’re humans and we’ve got to do what we can try to do to get them back on their feet,” he said.
In setting up the site, however, the city has laid down some rules. Site occupants are not allowed to loiter in the front of the building and cannot be on the sidewalks entering into the building.
They may also not block any of the handicap pathways or block any of the doors, even if the door is not an entrance.
The site is also limited to just six people to keep it manageable.
Part of the strategy is to provide a pathway for individuals who need a hand up.
While some in the community have complained that city should not be providing this service at the community center, city staff have said that the proximity provides the opportunity to make much-needed connections.
“If we pushed them off the Community Center, they’d be in the parks and they’d be scattered around throughout the community,” said Meyers. “And we wouldn’t have that direct connection where we’re able to regularly check on them.”
The city is working with other organizations such as Carry It Forward, Be Your Best, Looking Glass and others to establish avenues of upward mobility.
South Lane Mental Health is also a resource, though the nonprofit is currently understaffed and finding it difficult to secure positions.
Another reason for the city’s approach has been to help other members of the community and businesses by providing an alternative to doorstops and sidewalks, said Meyers.
“So we try to provide some opportunity for some dignity for them, as well as reduce the impact on others,” he said.
However, Meyers added that one disappointing aspect has been the way some in the community have treated those camping in the area, such as backing vehicles up the tents and pumping fumes at the homeless.
Others have pulled up, shining their lights or flashing them on and off at the at the tents “and just mistreating and harassing these individuals,” said Meyers. “Some of them have had crises occur in their lives and that’s why they’re in the situation. They’ve never been in this kind of situation before.”
The reasons for each person’s predicament can vary, and in this lies the problem of building solutions. While some may struggle with addiction, others may have mental health problems. Each poses its own set of challenges.
Meyers hopes that, instead of bullying or mistreating, people would strive to find ways to help get them back on their feet.
“So that’s what we’re trying to do, in a nutshell,” he said.
Despite the ill treatment by some, city staff have noted that there are others who have been coming by and bringing food at night and checking in on their welfare. Police officers will also make regular rounds.
Some success has already been found on some fronts, too.
In at least one case, one of the people camped at the site was able to get a job and move on. Another is in line to get housing.
Many barriers still remain, however.
Cottage Grove’s low housing vacancies is an ever-present high hurdle for many.
“There are a couple of the individuals that are on the list to get housing, but they can’t because there isn’t anything in the county let alone Cottage Grove,” said Meyers.
While the city’s strategy is to provide a way for people to get back into traditional modes of living like a house or apartment, other deeper problems sometimes must be addressed.
Obtaining identification, for instance, is a common problem for many.
This was the case for an individual at the Community Center site. The lack of ID was preventing him from getting a job.
Determined to assuage his misfortune, a staff member took him to the DMV and obtained an ID with him so he could continue his job search. And because he didn’t have an address, the city allowed the use of the Community Center’s for the identification.
“But it’s a long, difficult process and we desperately need other housing,” Meyers said.
Other resources are available for those struggling to grab a foothold, too.
On the Community Center site, individuals have access to a portable bathroom and wash station.
Nonprofit Community Sharing also debuted a mobile shower trailer this year.Since opening in July with just 14 visitors, showers a month at the trailer rose to 39 in October.
“And that’s one of the things we’ve seen, is getting them cleaned up, getting them to the showers, getting them back to where they feel like they’re starting to fit back into society,” said Meyers. “So we’re working those things out to try to make it a little easier for them to take advantage of other services.”
Some problems may require institutional assistance, though, such as with people whose drug addictions have incapacitated their ability to make decisions in their best interest.
“That’s something the state has got to address, and we can’t address,” said Meyers. “But the ones we can address are those people that are just struggling to survive, and as a result of an illness, or an accident, or a job loss, or some crazy crisis that occurred in their life, are now homeless.”
The question of what to do to enact true problem-solving, though, is why Meyers sees the Community Center site as only a temporary solution.
“Living under a canopy in the back of the parking lot doesn’t quite get there,” he said. “But at least we’re trying to treat them in a way that we’re going to help.”
The list of challenges for one individual can run so deep, though, sometimes a great deal of attention is needed to navigate onward and upward.
“You’ve got to assign one person to be with them and walk them through those steps as they try to get that squared away,” Meyers noted.
As one approach, the city is looking at the “Housing First” model, which places shelter as a priority, removing many of the stressors and hurdles that come with homelessness.
“If they’re going to get out into the workforce and they’re going to get things taken care of, they need to solve the ones that are tough first, and the toughest one is housing,” Meyers said. “The ‘Housing First’ model will get them into something that’s stable … then some of the others start falling into place.”
Lately, the city has been seriously considering the option of setting up transitional housing, though conversations on what that might look like have only just begun among various community channels.
The idea of setting up a site for the unhoused does not sit well with all in the community, however, as even the Community Sharing Warming Shelter has sparked fears that such facilities will only act as a magnet for more homeless, effectively turning Cottage Grove into downtown Eugene.
However, the emergence of more homeless people is inevitable as facilities are built, said Meyers, “because as we do this, those people that are invisible in the community that are homeless will come out. The ones that are hiding under the bridge, or the ones that are in some place where they are not visible, we will start to see them.”
There are an estimated 40 people who are homeless in the Cottage Grove community.
Meyers said he believed the numbers of unhoused youth is about 200, though programs like McKinney-Vento which work with such youth operate on a broader definition, which may account for the high number.
But even if a transitional housing program were to attract homeless from outside the area, Meyers reasoned that the problem could solve itself if the program allows upward mobility which consistently makes space for new people.
In the end, he said, it falls on the community to solve the problem.
“The federal government has failed, the state government has failed, the county is struggling,” he said. “And that’s why the courts have pushed it to the only level of government that can really do anything — that local government where it takes individuals working with individuals.”
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