Council hits stalemate on homelessness issue

PHOTO: Damien Sherwood/Cottage Grove Sentinel The town hall on April 5 presented proposals for addressing homelessness and asked the public 25 questions on the issue.

After a three-hour discussion on homelessness on Monday, the Cottage Grove City Council finished the night without making a final decision on how to move forward. Several motions were put forward at the end of the night, but none passed.

However, city staff said they had enough direction on amendments to city code to come back to the council with a proposal at a later date.

The April 11 city council meeting was the culmination of months of public discussion on how to address homelessness in Cottage Grove and was in part informed by an April 5 town hall event at which around 200 people participated. Attendees both in person and online submitted answers to 25 questions on the topic in general as well as responses to proposals made by city staff.

In both February and March, the Cottage Grove City Council held separate two-hour long discussions on the issue, during which city staff presented data, legal explanations and proposed solutions to the council. (Details of those meetings can be found in The Sentinel’s coverage in its Feb. 10 and March 16 issues.)

The effort to address homelessness has stemmed from both a court case and resulting state legislative action. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the case of Martin v Boise [2018] held that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds available for their homeless population. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2019, effectively holding the circuit court’s ruling.

Also, an upcoming Oregon law (HB 3115) will codify this ruling into state law, going into effect July 1, 2023. The legislative act will force many cities, including Cottage Grove, to make certain code changes to stay in compliance.

The local discussion has revolved around how to change city code, which is a required minimum response, and what ought to be done, if anything, to further address the restrictions around prohibiting camping in public places.

Town Hall

The April 5 town hall presented the city’s proposals and elicited public response on these topics.

Mayor Jeff Gowing started the event by defining the mission of the City of Cottage Grove as promoting “a vibrant community by providing a foundation of services for all. This discussion tonight has the goal to provide the city council with the additional input they need to move forward with that mission for all members of the community.”

Attendees sat at tables with city councilors and city staff, who served as facilitators for the two-hour event. The city reported that there were 60 or so people who attended online.

To collect opinions from the widest audience possible, Gowing said, the format did not allow for individual testimony at a microphone. Instead, City Manager Richard Meyers and City Attorney Carrie Connelly alternatively presented information in sections to the audience and paused after each for the audience to answer questions or conduct discussions at their respective tables.

Some questions were multiple choice while others prompted a written response. Attendees could choose to enter answers through an app on their devices or submit physical notecards provided at the tables.

Much of the information presented at the town hall was the same as had been presented in the city council’s previous discussions on the matter.

In his presentation, Meyers made the case that rent prices are a primary cause and predictor of homelessness in a given area rather than availability of services or level of drug abuse. Sources included economists John Quigley and Steven Raphael, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, ECONorthwest and Zillow Economic Research.

Oregon’s median gross rent was $1,185 as of 2019. In 2018, the state had the second highest rate of unsheltered homeless people in the country and also has the third highest rates of chronically homeless people in the U.S.

Cottage Grove itself has a housing vacancy rate around one percent. A 2018 Cottage Grove Housing Needs Analysis identified a shortage of housing across all income groups. The ECONorthwest analysis recommended 1,379 new housing units be constructed in the city between 2018 and 2038, or an average of 69 new units each year.

A recently adopted “Homeless by Name List” method to record more accurate numbers of the homeless population has, as of January 2022, listed 4,003 individuals in Lane County. This by-name list, which is a list of unduplicated names, has so far recorded 188 people experiencing homelessness in Cottage Grove.

That number was derived from data at service contact points such as Community Sharing.

As a basic first step, Meyers and Connelly recommended changes to Cottage Grove’s city code to satisfy minimum legal requirements, which includes ceasing sanctions for camping or sleeping on public property when no other alternative is available. Per HB 3115, city staff also recommended amending existing city ordinances to remove language regulating “sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property open to the public.”

The city has 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.”

Connelly said the deletion of these subsections would meet criteria for “objectively reasonable” amendments to the code.

In public responses to the statement that the city “should do more than just the minimum required under case law and state statutes,” 72 percent of respondents said they agreed or somewhat agreed while 22 percent disagreed or somewhat disagreed.

As the city can use time, place and manner to set parameters within its code, another proposal suggested that subsection “K” replace the phrase “any park or part thereof” with “community, neighborhood and mini parks and any riparian or wetland areas”. 

In response to a question asking to prioritize which parks should prohibit camping, attendees ranked community parks (Coiner and Bohemia parks) first, followed in descending order by neighborhood parks (Kelly Field and Fort Harrison and Stewart Orchard parks), mini parks (Skate Park, Gateway Park, Masonic Park, Triangle Park, Westend Park and Whiteman Park), greenway/nodal parks (Trailhead Park, Row River Trail, Silk Creek Park, Willamette Greenway, Benny Hubbell Park, City Hall Park, Prospector Park, Riverside Park, Veteran Park and Haskell Park), and finally regional parks (North Regional Park and Row River Nature Park).

Ninety-three percent of respondents said they thought the city should develop shelter sites to prevent camping in city parks.

Another proposed city code amendment recommended changing Chapter 10.30 on roadway use to allow for camping in a right of way in a vehicle if certain conditions are met such as not parking within 100 feet of a public or private school or public playground. It would prohibit non-vehicle camping in bike lanes, sidewalks and planting strips.

Respondents overwhelmingly wanted continued enforcement of the city’s 72-hour parking limit and wanted language in such an amendment to include prohibiting waste from the camped vehicle.

Meyers told the audience that “minimum action does not protect or enhance the quality of life in Cottage Grove,” suggesting that protecting parks, public right of ways and helping people “who have been thrust into homelessness” would be necessary to do so.

He presented National Alliance to End Homelessness information, which advocates for a “housing first” model. The model promotes giving homeless people access to shelters without prerequisites and assisting them toward the goal of permanent housing, which includes diversion services that address individual barriers (such as mental health counseling).

Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they supported the development of a low-barrier shelter site for community members experiencing homelessness, with the goal to access permanent housing as soon as possible. Eighty percent also agreed or somewhat agreed that the city should be providing shelters and wraparound services for this population.

The city has proposed using its property at the south end of city limits on Highway 99 as a low-barrier site as it already has a structure which could serve as a place to provide wraparound services through a contracted organization. Up to 40 individuals are expected to be able to be housed and served on the site once preparation work is done and the Community Sharing Warming Shelter’s Pallet shelters are moved in.

The city’s proposal was to decommission its current temporary sites at the Community Center/Library and City Hall by May 1 and immediately open another temporary low-barrier site at the current warming shelter while work on a sustainable low-barrier site with wraparound services is completed.

Overall, there was strong support for using the current Community Sharing Warming Shelter site as a temporary shelter until a low-barrier site can be prepared, but most respondents disagreed it should be used as the low-barrier site itself. Eighty percent approved of the city property site on Hwy 99 as the low-barrier site with wraparound services.

One open question, however, has been where people will go once successfully using such a program. The vast majority of town hall respondents (80 percent or more) agreed with statements that the city should seek ways to increase low-income housing availability and purchase land for such projects.

City property at 443 N Douglas Ave. has been suggested for this in previous discussions.

Responses from the public regarding the city’s overall proposal were numerous and mixed, most in approval (84 percent thought the approach was reasonable), though others voiced concern in written responses about safe access to the Hwy 99 site for pedestrians and the extent of intoxication in or around the site. Some asked that the plan include a sunset clause as well.

Another contingent of attendees has since expressed disappointment on other platforms regarding the “leading” nature of the presentation.

Public Comments

At the following Cottage Grove City Council meeting on April 11, several residents also shared their opinions during public comment.

Resident Bruce Kelsh spoke highly of the city’s method of hosting its town hall on homelessness, praising the format, information and discourse.

“It was an impressive accomplishment to set up that meeting and very well organized,” he said. “I was proud of Cottage Grove once again for engaging in civil discourse, sitting with neighbors who have differing opinions on an important issue and sharing their thoughts with one another. We all benefit from that.”

Resident Suzanne Keaveny thanked the city for its town hall as well.

“I’m glad that something is going to happen to address the problem,” she said, speaking of times in her own life when she lived on the edge of homelessness.

Carrol Crawford and Russ Dregne, members of The Home Team and affiliates for the Boxabl company, presented an affordable home ownership option ($250 per month) — deliverable houses which unfold and are ready for move-in within a matter of hours.

Not all comments were in support of the city’s direction or the town hall’s presentation, however.

Resident Kathleen Mattson was concerned about the city’s plans due to her own experiences with drug use and behavioral issues with homeless people.

Resident Andrew Cruden raised concerns about cost.

“My question here is: This homeless oasis that you guys are wanting to create — How are we going to pay for it? We’re going to have police there. We’re going to have to have other resources. Is it going to come out of our property taxes, and eventually we’re going to be paying for it for those of us who are homeowners? That’s my question for today.”

Resident Johanna Zee pointed to concerns that had been expressed about the format of the town hall and recommended holding one where better discussions could take place among community members.

“You cannot take these results very seriously as the questions and the process was manipulated right from the start,” she said. “It was really a presentation for a proposal that was geared towards producing desired results. It was essentially shaping our answers.”

She took issue with groups from Eugene such as Carry It Forward being considered to fix problems in Cottage Grove and also asked Councilor Mike Fleck to recuse himself from decision-making due to his role as executive director at Community Sharing.

Resident Linda Olsen criticized the format of the town hall, in particular the fact that she was not allowed to speak after being given the impression she could. She also classified the issue not as homeless problem, but as a “lack of work” problem.

Lastly, resident Bill Christiansen said he was left feeling the town hall’s questions were biased, leading toward responses in favor of the city’s plan. He also advocated for responsibility and accountability over enabling bad behavior through handouts.

“All it does is perpetuate dependency, misery and hopelessness. And I don’t want those things for the homeless,” he said. “I want hope. I want change. I want sustainability.”

Council Opinions

Following comments, the city council discussed the issue for three hours, struggling to find common ground among all seven members.

Councilors started by taking turns sharing their opinions.

Councilor Kenneth Michael Roberts spoke first, detailing his own rise out of drug addiction and homelessness 32 years ago. In the program he found, he was given the opportunity to get off drugs, find stability through classes and eventually gain independence.

“That program literally changed my life,” he said. “It made me who I am today. And it’s what I’d like to see us do in Cottage Grove.”

In this, he advocated for a high-barrier program.

He also reiterated a point he had made before, advocating for doing something “different and bold” in Cottage Grove and pointed to the Eugene Mission as a model Cottage Grove could learn from.

Councilor Greg Ervin said he didn’t think the issue was primarily a homeless issue, but rather degraded livability in the city, which pulled down people’s ambition.

He wanted the council to articulate what the role of the city was in regard to homelessness, and also what it wasn’t, saying he didn’t believe it was the city’s responsibility. He listed police, housing codes, recreation opportunities, better roads and promoting a welcome, safe environment for children as priorities.

While advocating for equality of opportunity he also supported enhancing law enforcement and more deeply exploring Eugene’s CAHOOTS model for handling crisis situations.

“We want a welcome, hospitable environment in our town and we want to maintain that through enforcing our current codes,” he said.

He was in favor of changing city codes to come into compliance with the law, but not in favor of setting up the city’s proposed low-barrier site with wraparound services, instead preferring other methods such as promoting services which already exist in the community and CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs.

Providing simple city-endorsed jobs, he said, could give people “opportunity to build dignity”.

“We don’t have a homeless problem — we have a bad behavior, entitled attitude, not-willing-to-participate-in-society problem. And I don’t think we should tolerate that,” he said.

Councilor Jon Stinnett spoke about the divergence between people’s feelings and actions, pointing to people’s professed compassion for the homeless yet unwillingness to commit to solutions for various reasons.

“These are not new people in our community; they’ve been hiding,” he said. “There is no ‘they’. ‘They’ is ‘us.’”

He said he had concerns about the Hwy 99 site because of the danger for pedestrians and thought the current warming shelter site would be a fitting place as denizens of the city’s temporary shelters are moved.

“To solve this problem, it’s going to take each and every one of us to buy in,” he said.

Councilor Fleck said he shared concerns about comparisons to the homelessness situation in bigger cities.

“When I look at other communities, like Eugene or Portland, I have some real fears about folks camping in an unmanaged environment. I do think that that is problematic,” he said.

But, he said, he saw a need for people to overcome helplessness as a key to moving upward.

“There’s no motivation for people to change unless you give them hope,” he said, adding that for this reason he prefers a low-barrier site to high-barrier.

He also pointed to the cost of cleaning up camping sites under bridges and other places incurred by the city ($50,000 in a recent single cleanup) and made the case that it made financial sense to set up well-managed site.

Fleck declared a potential conflict of interest on the matter, saying that Community Sharing did not intend on applying to host any sites.

He agreed with Stinnett’s concern about the Hwy 99 site, favoring the North Douglas site, but said he would entertain Hwy 99 as the city manager and Carry It Forward preferred it.

Youth Advisory Council representative Emma McDonald said she saw homelessness and drug addiction as separate but related vicious cycles.

“It’s important to break that cycle as soon and as efficiently as possible,” she said. “I think one of the most important aspects to solving homelessness in Cottage Grove is to give people an opportunity to get them on their feet instead of just giving them a place to go temporarily and expecting them to figure it out for themselves.”

Councilor Chalice Savage said the topic was deeply personal to her because she had spent time unhoused and did not think anyone was content in that state.

“I can’t imagine not wanting four walls and a roof,” she said.

She agreed with Councilor Roberts’s proposal and said there is a space for accountability and responsibility in a solution.

She told the story of a friend with a child with special needs who lost her home. A program in Eugene lifted her out, Savage said, and helped her get back on her feet.

“But she can’t get that for free. There is buy-in. There is skin in the game,” she said, adding that she believed “we are responsible for those around us.”

“I believe the folks that need the most help need more than we can give. But that’s a small percentage,” she said, advocating for a low-barrier or even medium-barrier solution.

Councilor Candace Solesbee echoed some previously stated concerns around the town hall format.

She advocated for using critically thinking as other cities are being inundated by the homelessness problem and did not agree with a low-barrier site, pointing to neighbors of the Hwy 99 site who expressed their concerns in an April 4 article in The Sentinel.

She also brought up problems at the Community Center site as troubling signs.

She rejected the low-barrier site proposal based partly on its admittance of people under the influence of drugs.

“Anybody that’s ever known anyone with a drug addiction or problem with alcohol or has had it themselves knows that being exposed to others that are allowed to do drugs or be intoxicated before they come in is, for someone struggling to stay clean, an actual sabotage to them,” she said.

As a temporary solution, she recommended designating a park in town for homeless to use where city code around littering would be enforced.

“I would suggest a navigation team consisting of city staff, police and social services,” she said. “When a navigation team encounters homeless, they connect them with the proper services then properly take steps to ensure that the tents are only in select spaces designated for sleeping.”

Solesbee also wanted the city to utilize programs like MUPTE or LIRHPTE (Low-income Rental Housing Property Tax Exemption) to increase housing availability.

“I think it’s time that we really hit this head on, look for the homeless in our community that we can help get into programs, help them out as a community and …. give them some jobs, but it just can’t be all for free. Because that is not working,” she said.

Mayor Jeff Gowing summarized his view: “doing nothing is not working … so we need to do something.”

He pointed out that bad behavior and drug abusers are housed as well, “so stereotyping them is not helpful,” saying that if could, he would increase availability of mental health services.

Gowing advocated for finding a way to provide adequate resources and facilities to help get people back on their feet.

Council Discussion

For the rest of the meeting, the council bounced back and forth between points such as high- versus low-barrier sites, how to address drug addiction and mental health issues and what time, place and manner restrictions might look like at the city’s parks.

Many of the same arguments made in councilors’ introductions we reiterated and opinions largely remained the same.

Councilors Solesbee and Ervin were generally opposed to the city’s proposed low-barrier site at Hwy 99.

Solesbee said she did not want to rush the situation and thought it needed more discussion and research before deciding on a set plan. Councilor Roberts agreed, saying he didn’t feel right spending money on something before knowing what exactly the program would look like.

City Manager Meyers said that, because the Community Center and City Hall sites are closing soon, he wanted to know if the council would like to move ahead with the Hwy 99 site. Work also needed to be done on the site before it would be ready for a contractor to use it.

However, the council had trouble reaching agreement on that point. Councilor Stinnett suggested using the warming shelter as a temporary site to house those moving from the Community Center and City Hall sites, but Councilor Savage said she would reject the proposal as it would put people there “on display”.

A motion was made to use the warming shelter site while the Hwy 99 site was being prepared and, in the meantime, the warming shelter site would be managed by Carry It Forward to provide constant monitoring.

The proposal was voted down.

Instead of the warming shelter site, Solesbee proposed designating a park temporarily, where law enforcement could patrol at the time of departure to enforce clean-up. She motioned that the city designate a city park for sleeping, sitting and resting between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

It was clarified by City Attorney Connelly, however, that this would increase the city’s liability as it “funnels” people to one particular place.

This was voted down as well.

Councilor Ervin made a motion that the city give notice to people at the Community Center and City Hall sites to leave but not provide another place on the city’s dollar, “but leave that up to the rallying of the community to come up with solutions, which I’m happy to be part of.”

The proposal was voted down.

Councilor Savage motioned moving directly to the Hwy 99 site and “doing the bare minimum”, meaning basic facilities and a nonprofit manager, as a temporary solution.

Public Works and Development Director Faye Stewart said he wasn’t sure it was possible for the city to be able to prepare the site in time and the motion was withdrawn.

Stewart was asked to come back to the next meeting with more details of plans for the Hwy 99 site.

Near the four-hour mark of the meeting, the council adjourned.

The next city council meeting is scheduled for April 25 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

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