The Cottage Grove City Council continued its discussion on homelessness on Monday night in a work session which did not end in consensus, but did result in an agreement to receive proposals from community organizations to consider solutions.
Councilors were asked to come to the work session prepared to answer the question of what they wanted the city’s response to homelessness to be and why.
While there was still disagreement on what an effective response would look like, the council ultimately set a date to hear from groups in the community to propose their own solutions and gave direction to city staff to bring recommendations for city code changes to a future council meeting.
The proposals are scheduled to be heard on July 18 at 6 p.m.
The council and city staff have been grappling with how to respond to the city’s homelessness situation since lengthy discussion sessions began in February this year.
Though several council meetings and a public town hall have been dedicated to the topic and the council had voted to begin development on a proposed Highway 99 site to create a low-barrier shelter with wraparound services, the council subsequently backtracked on the decision and is currently in a stalemate regarding a solution.
Setting the Context
Councilor Kenneth Roberts started off the work session on a conciliatory tone by apologizing for the way he had been conducting the discussion on the topic, owing to his emotional investment and personal background as someone who had lived through homelessness.
“I really want to be able to work together,” he told the council.
Councilor Mike Fleck then declared a potential conflict of interest as executive director of local nonprofit Community Sharing, though he said his organization had no intention of applying to manage a shelter.
City Manager Richard Meyers began the discussion by summarizing the main points of the issue as they pertained to the debate the council has been having.
A local discussion on homelessness began following the Ninth Circuit Court decision in Martin v Boise in 2018, in which the court ruled and that a city ordinance violates the Eighth Amendment insofar as it imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors on public property when no alternative shelter is available to them.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by the City of Boise to review the case in 2019, effectively binding the circuit court ruling.
That ruling makes certain sections of Cottage Grove City Code unconstitutional.
City staff have thus proposed eliminating subsections “I” and “K” under Chapter 12.24.020, which deals with prohibited activities in city parks and public playgrounds.
Subsection “I” 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.”
Subsection “K” states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to enter or remain in any park or part thereof from 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.”
The city’s attorney, Carrie Connelly, has said the deletion of these subsections would meet criteria for “objectively reasonable” amendments to the code.
“So we’re currently not enforcing those provisions that prohibit camping in our parks, or prohibit people from being in the parks from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.,” said Meyers. “Those provisions need to be removed or amended to where they comply with that Ninth Circuit Court ruling.”
The Oregon Legislative Assembly has also passed House Bill (HB) 3115, which codifies the Ninth Circuit ruling into state law and could make the city vulnerable to litigation for simply having non-compliant laws on the books.
The bill will go into effect July 1, 2023.
Meyers cited page 66 of Martin v Boise as stating that a jurisdiction with insufficient shelter may be able to criminalize the act of sleeping outside, even where shelter is unavailable, justices going as far as saying that a prohibition on sitting, lying or sleeping outside at a particular time or location “might” be constitutional.
Though the case provided little guidance on what “might” constitute a particular time and location, the case of Blake v Grants Pass served as the first test against Martin v Boise.
The City of Grants Pass had tried to address homelessness with the use of violations and fines to punish people for sleeping in any public space in the city for certain amounts of time or while using any type of item that falls into the category of “bedding”. The resulting lawsuit against the city alleged that officials had tried to make life as unpleasant as possible for homeless people in an effort to push them out of town.
In its 2020 ruling, the district court stated this violated the Eighth Amendment regarding cruel and unusual punishment and that it was unconstitutional to punish people for sleeping outdoors in public spaces when there is a greater number of homeless individuals than the number of available shelter beds.
The district court further ruled that the “alternative shelters” as described in Martin v Boise did not include entities with religious barriers, federal Bureau of Land Management land, county land, state rest areas or warming shelters.
However, the ruling did state that if there is shelter available and it is realistically available for an individual to access, a city may enforce prohibitions on camping on public lands.
Further parameters were set by the Oregon legislature, which stipulate that any city which regulates sitting, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property must be “objectively reasonable” as to the time, place and manner.
“They didn’t clearly decide what ‘objectively reasonable’ is,” said Meyers. “You can set those regulations up, but if it’s not objectively reasonable, the city can be sued and ‘reasonableness shall be determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including but not limited to the impact of the law on persons experiencing homelessness.’”
As a general approach, city staff and legal counsel have advocated for creating as many alternatives as possible to avoid making Cottage Grove a test case in the courts.
In generating a response and solution in Cottage Grove, Meyers said city staff had pored over reports, analyses and cases locally, countywide and in other Oregon cities.
Soon after the Martin v Boise ruling, Meyers said he created “stakeholders” group which included leaders and representatives of various entities including South Lane School District, Lane County, Carry It Forward, Community Sharing, Be Your Best, SquareOne Villages, Cottage Village Coalition, Looking Glass, South Lane Mental Health, South Lane Wheels and St. Vincent DePaul.
“We talked about youth homelessness, we talked about adult homelessness, we talked about mental health, we talked about emergency provisions for crisis management and mental health — we’ve talked about a wide range of services and functions in the community,” said Meyers, adding that the group is not a public body and is not subject to public meetings law.
Years’ worth of information gathered from this group, he said, helped in informing the city’s eventual proposal of the Hwy 99 shelter site.
Meyers also weighed the city’s options and reiterated a point that doing nothing would limit the city’s ability to manage its parks. Cheaper alternatives such as tent sites with no management, he said, would also create more problems than they solve.
A “dusk-to-dawn” alternative, similar to a year-round warming shelter, had been explored by the group as well. In such a scenario, however, there is no opportunity for case management, Meyers said, describing other facilities with dusk-to-dawn sites as creating long lines and heavy congregations of people waiting to get in the site.
Another option, which Meyers described in more positive terms, is a “dawn-to-dawn” site which would include 24/7 emergency shelters, food storage and case management. Behavioral regulations would also be enforced, including prohibition of drugs and alcohol.
As a final alternative, Meyers talked about relying on the community’s charity, however, he said charitable groups like churches don’t have the capacity to handle needs such as mental health services or crisis work.
The city’s policy options regarding time, place and manner restrictions, Meyers said, are “very contingent on what you do for sheltering. If you do no shelter, the time, place and manner is going to be very minimal in what you can do and legally get away with. If you do some significant sheltering and meet the needs for an alternative shelter, your time, place and manner can be much more restrictive on your public spaces.”
Councilors then spent the work session discussing the details of the cases and what options were available to the city.
There was a general agreement that the city code should be brought into compliance and staff were directed to bring a recommendation to council at a future meeting.
On shelter options, however, Councilor Candace Solesbee took issue with the sense of urgency with which the proposed Hwy 99 site had been presented and said she would prefer to see more models on the table before committing to one.
“I think it should be a community model — for our community — not what is working for Eugene, or not working for Eugene, or working for Salem, or not working for Salem,” she said. “We’re different. We are Cottage Grove. And so we can work and figure out what’s good for our people.”
Councilor Roberts agreed with Solesbee, reiterating a point he has made before about the need for a unique approach.
Meyers responded that the city’s proposal of the Hwy 99 is a unique solution which includes using the city’s Pallet shelters and providing a place for counseling, management and training which could provide opportunities for users of the facility to re-incorporate themselves into the community in a productive way.
There is also a future plan to address the “full package”, he said, as the city is looking at options to create downstream housing options for people who successfully graduate through the program.
Councilors also went back and forth about the definition of “low-barrier”, which Meyers defined as “a facility that has an easy access for individuals to get in and use the facility” and does not allow for drugs or alcohol. He pointed to the Community Sharing Warming Shelter as an example, a facility which checked bags at its front gate and prohibited drugs or paraphernalia.
Councilor Fleck, whose nonprofit ran the warming shelter, confirmed that the shelter was run as a low-barrier site.
“Low-barrier means you take people as they are, but you certainly do not allow drugs,” he said. “It wasn’t about being inebriated or not, it was about behavior.”
Two people received permanent suspensions due to behavior, he said, adding that “low-barrier doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all.”
Solesbee said that she wanted to provide people with an option that meant they would not be in their troubled position five years from now.
Meyers said that was also the goal of the proposed Hwy 99 site.
“We don’t want to be treating the symptom; we want to be treating the cause,” he said, by getting people ready for permanent housing.
The conversation also turned to the possibility of using community resources such as churches before investing in a project like the proposed Hwy 99 site.
Both Meyers and Councilor Fleck reported at various points in the conversation that local churches did not have the resources to tackle the problem.
Still, Councilor Greg Ervin said he preferred to “lean on the community first” rather than make a budget line item for the city. He proposed that Pallet shelters be distributed through the community and that charitable organizations and volunteers step up to take on management duties.
Mayor Jeff Gowing said he liked the idea, but questioned how pressing problems like mental health would be addressed in this scenario. Ervin said he didn’t have an immediate answer to that, but he thought that providing better information to the public about local resources could help alleviate that issue.
Councilor Jon Stinnett countered that he didn’t think a uniform service could be provided across that kind of network and emphasized the need to prioritize shelter.
Councilor Fleck added that the point of a “housing first” model was to get people into stable and safe situations in order to begin working on other issues.
Councilor Solesbee said she would like to see various groups present their plans to the council in order to “see the diversity in the programs and see what’s best for our community.”
Meyers responded that this purpose could be fulfilled with the city’s already-prepared request for proposal (RFP), in other words, allowing the city to set standards and letting service providers explain how they could meet those standards.
However, Solesbee said she still preferred to hear from potential providers first.
Councilor Ervin proposed giving the community a chance to “step up” to meet the problem. Fleck said he would be amenable to allowing a month or so for Ervin’s idea to play itself out.
“I’m more interested in finding solutions than I am complaints,” Fleck said. “And if folks are wanting to come to provide solutions, I am more than happy to listen.”
Mayor Gowing, though he worried local religious groups and nonprofits did not have the resources to take on such a project, said he would be willing to reach out to them in the meantime.
Presentations to the council from community organizations are scheduled for July 18 at 6 p.m. in the council chambers.
The next regular city council meeting is scheduled for June 13 at 7 p.m.