City holds work session on homelessness


The Cottage Grove City Council and city staff met on Monday night (Feb. 7) in a two-hour work session to discuss options around the issue of homelessness.

Though no actions were taken during the session, councilors zeroed in on some key areas of concern and agreed on the need for more community input before final decisions are made regarding proposed solutions.

The city, nonprofits and community members have tried to manage the issue through various means over the years. Just last year, a mobile shower and units for a warming shelter site were set up, both currently run by nonprofit Community Sharing.

Most recently, the city erected a temporary shelter behind the Cottage Grove Community Center and Public Library which provides space for up to eight individuals. While the service has benefited some who have utilized it, it has also reportedly been an unpopular move with neighbors who have complained of illicit behavior, litter and waste coming from the site.

There are thought to be at least 30 or 40 people in a state of homelessness in the Cottage Grove area,  long-term solutions have yet to be developed to address their diverse needs.

Goals

Based on previous discussions the topic, the council had three goals to consider Monday night.

The first was to come into compliance with case law and Oregon statutes, City Manager Richard Meyers categorizing this as “probably the bare minimum goal that we have”.

Secondly, the council had previously discussed that, while complying with laws, the city should also explore ways to break down the barriers which prevent members of the community from finding their way out of homelessness.

The third goal was to open up housing opportunities that will stabilize and assist members of the community to develop skills which will allow them to move to more permanent solutions.

“We didn’t want to just shelter people; we wanted to do things to help them improve and get out of that cycle and then to seek ways to develop permanent, supportive housing opportunities,” said Meyers, summarizing the council’s previous discussions. “So once we get them into some kind of system, we need somewhere for them to go, or they’re going to remain homeless. Solving homelessness is not just building shelters and putting people in camps — we’ve got to move them into housing somewhere and get them into some supportive and permanent supportive housing or low-income or affordable housing.”

The first of the goals refers in part to the 2019 case of Martin v. Boise and a Ninth Circuit Court ruling which established that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally charged for sleeping outside on public property if there is no shelter space available.

It also established that a city’s ordinance violates the Eighth Amendment (regarding cruel and unusual punishment) insofar as it imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors on public property when they have no alternative shelter.

Regarding this, of immediate concern to the City of Cottage Grove is a subsection under Chapter 12.24.020 of the city code which states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to camp out or sleep in any park area at such time when the park is closed, except by specific permission of the city manager or designee and only in areas designated for such purpose.”

“That is flat-out a violation of Martin v. Boise,” said Meyers.

Even if the city should find a way to make shelters available, Meyers pointed out, if those shelters become full, then cases would fall back on the Martin v. Boise ruling and the city would thus be out of compliance.

“We want to try to build it into a way that that doesn’t happen,” he said about proposed solutions.

Also in regard to the first goal, the Oregon Legislature in 2021 passed House Bill 3115, which essentially codifies the Martin v. Boise ruling into state law. It also states that, even if a city is not enforcing ordinances which are not in compliance, the city can be sued. It will go into effect July 1, 2023.

For these reasons, city staff proposed changes to city code, the first being the elimination of the Chapter 12 subsection prohibiting people from camping. 

Another subsection would be amended to read: “It shall be unlawful for any person to enter or remain in Community, Neighborhood and Mini parks and any riparian or wetland areas from 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.”

The terms cover most major parks in the city, but there are parks that don’t fit these definitions, which would provide some available space. However, if those spaces are full or can’t be used for some reason, “this whole ordinance could go away,” said Meyers. “And they could still come back into those community or neighborhood parks if they couldn’t use those other facilities.”

Councilor Greg Ervin questioned why time restrictions couldn’t be put on all parks.

“[The law] specifically says that you’re allowed to enact or enforce a time, place and manner restriction, but it has to be objectively reasonable with regards to persons experiencing homelessness,” responded City Attorney Carrie Connelly. “So we really can’t take everything off the table.”

Connelly added that “the penalties are pretty high for getting it wrong … so you’re incentivized to be conservative.”

Until further case law is established, terms such as “objectively reasonable” will have to wait to be fully fleshed out. 

Another amendment was proposed by city staff to Chapter 10 of city code regarding street right of way. Due to the traffic safety issues, staff recommended adding a provision which limits the ability to camp in a vehicle on a city right of way and outright bans camping in a tent or other non-vehicle.

“We’re making sure we don’t end up like the pictures you see in Los Angeles or Portland where they’re filling the sidewalks along the downtown business area,” said Meyers. “That’s not acceptable.”

Another draft ordinance was on the table for the night, but not discussed in depth. The draft, referred to as “a work in progress,” addresses transitional housing and overnight camping by providing some areas for overflow for individuals to keep them out of city parks, pursuant to state statutes.

Ultimately, “we want to create something that is enforceable,” Connelly said.

Proposed Solutions

On the other two goals, several proposals were on the table. The main solution discussed was transitional housing.

Meyers defined transitional housing as: “anything inside an urban growth boundary, from vehicle camping, to tents, to structures built that are non-permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.”

He broke the concept down into two kinds: (1) emergency shelter with low or no barriers and (2) housing with higher barriers and more responsibilities and personal development opportunities.

The idea of the higher barrier transitional housing model is to encourage upward mobility out of emergency shelters or low-barrier sites and into permanent supportive, low-income or affordable housing.

Meyers pointed to the necessity of keeping the low-barrier model, too, using the city’s own temporary shelter behind the Community Center as an example. A few weeks ago, he said, one of the tenants there passed away in the camp because the individual was focused on trying to find another place to stay and neglected paying attention to his pressing health issues, which had been sending him to the hospital at least once a month.

Getting people better stabilized so they can pay more attention to basic needs, Meyers said, is crucial not just for survival, but also making first steps toward breaking out of homelessness.

“We want to eliminate that site,” he said of the shelter behind the Community Center. “But we do not want to release those people and just say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to help you anymore, go find someplace else. You won’t have any kind of supervision, you won’t have any kind of counseling or help or support to keep you there.’”

Meyers also regarded the Community Sharing Warming Shelter as a successful low-barrier housing option.

This season, between Dec. 13, 2021, and Feb. 2, 2022, the shelter activated 20 times, averaging about 14 clients per activation. There are 17 units available at the site and an additional 15 smaller units have been requested from the county as some nights have filled the site to capacity.

Meyers stated that, except for one case, the people using the facility were from the community and the numbers did not represent an influx from outside the area.

Meyers also proposed options for the second-tier transitional housing. City property on Highway 99, for instance, already has a house and facilities on it and, though it needs work, could function as a transitional housing site in the future.

There is also the city’s recent purchase of property at 443 N Douglas Ave., which is in a more residential area, but could operate as a higher-barrier transitional housing site and would require a degree of responsibility and self-governance from its residents.

Meyers also brought up Homes for Good as another tool. The Lane County housing authority has operated the Riverview Apartments at the corner of Main Street and River Road for many decades and may be a viable option to run other facilities.

There is also a proposal from Carry It Forward, a nonprofit which serves unhoused people in Lane County, in which the city would build a facility that would be run 24 hours for up to 40 people at $170,000 a year. The nonprofit would run and operate the facility and provide the counseling, interviewing and processing, which would enable people to get out of homelessness and into more permanent housing.

Funding for the project could be pulled from multiple sources including the county, PeaceHealth, coordinated care organizations and American Rescue Plan funds.

Discussion

The council’s thoughts on the proposals were varied, some wary of the efficacy of the solutions and others very supportive.

In looking for ways to relieve the city of the burden of investing in these projects, Councilor Greg Ervin suggested creating a system in which individuals could volunteer their own private property for transitional housing if they wanted to “operate on their own generosity”.

In a similar vein, Mayor Jeff Gowing asked if nonprofit organizations could run operations.

Meyers said the nonprofit cases would satisfy the Martin v. Boise ruling, but it wasn’t clear that volunteering of private property would.

Councilor Candace Solesbee then asked City Attorney Connelly for clarification on the Martin v. Boise case. Solesbee read from an article which challenged the prevailing interpretation of the case, namely that it prevents cities from clearing encampments when there is no alternative.

“Martin v. Boise does nothing more than acknowledge that the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and holds that criminalizing, arresting and jailing a person who lacks access to adequate temporary shelter for the mere act of sitting, lying or sleeping in public is cruel and unusual,” she read. “Multiple courts have held that ‘Martin’ does not preclude a local government from clearing encampments, so long as no arrests are made.”

It was not stated what the source of the article was.

Connelly responded that, if a city were to try to enforce time limits or sleeping violations by clearing people out of parks, that act would have to be backed up by law.

“So right there you’re imposing on them a cruel and unusual punishment by enforcing your code which prevents sleeping in parks,” said Connelly. “So if you’re going to enforce it, then you need to have reasonable alternatives, locations for them to go.”

The “reasonability” of options, however, need to be assessed case by case for each citation. “And that puts officers in a really tough position,” added Connelly.

Solesbee said her main concern was that the proposals would not be viable solutions and would actually cause the problem of homelessness to grow. She pointed to Eugene, Portland and Seattle of examples of cities with a wealth of such resources and yet have not tempered the homelessness issue successfully.

As a result, “I’m very reluctant to go down this road,” she said.

Solesbee also questioned how the city could know the homeless clients it is currently serving are local.

“Most of them don’t want people to know they’re homeless, because it’s embarrassing. And so they hide it and they hide it well,” answered Meyers. He added that the Cottage Grove Police Department comes in contact with many of the same people on a regular basis and cited some examples of people the city has helped who had previously been living under the radar.

He also said the city’s approach would not be the same as cities like Eugene.

“That’s what I want to show. We’re not going to create camps,” he said. “We want to create something where it is housing and there’s counseling and interviewing and other things that fill in those services. Get those barriers broken down so that they can get their IDs, they can get cleaned up and get going back to work.”

Councilor Mike Fleck, who is also executive director of Community Sharing, added that there are some struggling individuals who even his organization cannot help due to the individuals’ mental health issues.

“The state, in my opinion, has completely abandoned us in this one area,” he said. “And shipping folks to Eugene is not going to be the answer because there are also not spaces up there for folks … I don’t want to become Eugene, or Portland or Seattle, either, but I think we have to look at what are some reasonable first steps that we can do to mitigate the problem.”

Solesbee also clarified that she recognizes there are people who are “down on their luck” and struggling.

“I’m not talking about that particular group of people,” she said. “What concerns me is putting together a place like we’re talking about and having the same people come there night after night and fill it up. … so I would want to see some definite move-on regulations and something in place where the citizens of Cottage Grove are not taken advantage of.”

She also suggested whatever solutions are chosen should be done as trial runs to reserve the opportunity to back out of a plan gone awry.

Councilor Kenneth Roberts reiterated a point he has made to the council before, specifically his praise for the kind of programs which he himself benefited from decades ago. The service turned his life around, he said, by supplying him with the basic skills to bootstrap himself out of his dire situation.

“I’d love to see us get into a program similar to the one I went through,” he said, adding that he acknowledged that other communities seemed to be failing at fully addressing the problem of homelessness. “I’d like to see something that is bold and different, something different than what other communities are doing. I think we can lead the way here in the great State of Oregon and help change lives.”

Councilor Jon Stinnett said he believed it fell upon the city to find reasonable shelter solutions for people while balancing obligations to the community.

“I’m very concerned for the homeless in Cottage Grove, but also concerned for the neighbors behind the Community Center,” he said, and recommended putting more support behind the Community Sharing Warming Shelter.

Mayor Gowing said he would like to address root causes of homelessness and Meyers added that Carry It Forward has had success in addressing people’s problems by taking such an approach.

As ideas began to solidify among the council, Councilor Ervin said he was in favor of changing the code to come in compliance. On the other proposals, however, he was against creating resources that perpetuate an “attitude of entitlement”, instead advocating for movements toward “responsibility” and “accountability”. He was also concerned about using the federal dollars “on things that aren’t mission number one for a city — like infrastructure.”

Councilor Fleck said, in his experience, he has seen programs such as Carry It Forward help people develop toolkits for themselves to create upward mobility and that it would make sense to partner with other groups after investing in capital infrastructure.

Councilor Stinnett said he hoped to see a spirited public debate on the topic as it moves forward. He also advocated for providing facilities for those in need and a fundamental starting point.

“I don’t feel bad about people feeling entitled to shelter at their lowest points. This is a society we live in that seems to be built on a rampant, sort of disgusting inequality,” he said. “We’re not going to solve that as a community, but it’s hard for me to stomach the notion of a rich, very wealthy country that’s just chock full of poor people.”

Councilor Roberts asked about the budget for some of the night’s proposals. Meyers said that everything discussed that night could be addressed with American Rescue Plan money, adding that city staff had estimated that $500,000 would be enough to move forward with the projects.

The city is receiving around $2.3 million in total from the American Rescue Plan.

Meyers also reported that about $737 dollars per week is spent by the city on cleaning up homeless camp sites. “And that doesn’t include the big projects,” he added.

Councilor Chalice Savage said a discussion around affordable housing may also be part of the solution.

“[Some people] just need help getting on their feet,” she said. “And that would be affordable housing. So that should also be part of this conversation.”

She also said it would be advantageous to gain a real understanding of what the particular needs are of people experiencing homelessness.

Solesbee said “transitional” needed to be well-defined as she had seen examples in other cities extending as long as five to 10 years. 

She also raised a concern about getting community buy-in to whatever the council decided and said she’d prefer seeing ideas go to the ballot.

Meyers pushed back on the idea of a ballot, noting the cost and the amount of the time the council had already invested in discussing the topic to make informed decisions.

Solesbee then brought up the possibility of a town hall and other councilors voiced support of the idea.

One conclusion all seemed to agree on is that “doing nothing” is not an option and that changing city codes to come into compliance with case law and state statutes was a basic first step.

Meyers proposed holding a town hall after the possible end of mask mandates on March 31. Councilors did not decide on a date for a future meeting, but were leaning toward scheduling another work session before taking the topic to the public with a town hall format.

The city council is scheduled to meet in regular session on Feb. 14 at 7 p.m.

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