Council holds final homelessness discussion ahead of town hall

In preparation for a town hall meeting on April 5, the Cottage Grove City Council held its final discussion on homelessness during its Monday meeting this week.

The town hall is currently scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Cottage Grove Armory. The public is encouraged to attend.

Drawing from a 65-page packet prepared for the Monday’s meeting, City Manager Richard Meyers and City Attorney Carrie Connelly presented information on homelessness to the council, some of which had already been covered in the council’s work session on Feb. 7 this year.

However, this time around Meyers’ and Connelly’s presentation emphasized more strongly that a “housing first” model was necessary, making the case that rent prices are a primary cause of homelessness in a given area rather than the amount or kind of services.

The line of reasoning targeted a common refrain among those who are critical of bringing more homeless services into Cottage Grove, in particular speaking to the concern that these services would cause homelessness to grow or otherwise exacerbate the problem.

“The standard argument I’m hearing from communities is: ‘If we build it, they will come,’” Connelly said.

However, the presentation challenged this notion on a few fronts.

Meyers began by debunking “myths” about homelessness, the first being that homelessness is difficult to predict.

He cited economists John Quigley and Steven Raphael proofs that housing affordability is a reliable predictor of homelessness severity, pointing to figures which show that, for example, a 10 percent increase in rent leads to a 6.5 percent increase in the rate of homelessness.

The second myth stated that the West Coast faces higher rates of homelessness due to its lax laws and provision of shelters.

“The fact is, the West Coast faces one of the largest affordable housing shortages in the country, which has been identified as the number one cause of homelessness,” Meyers said.

He presented a graph which showed that states with the highest median rent were correlated with high homeless rates. He further added that states with rampant drug addiction problems but lower median rent were not seeing as high rates of homelessness.

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.

With a reported vacancy rate around one percent, it’s no secret that Cottage Grove has its own housing issues as well.

A 2018 Cottage Grove Housing Needs Analysis identified a shortage of housing across all income groups and recommended 1,379 new housing units be constructed in the city between 2018 and 2038, or an average of 69 new units each year.

The analysis stated that 20 percent of those units would have to target the low-income population.

The latest data on the number of homeless people in the area points to the extent of the problem.

A recently adopted “Homeless by Name List” method to record more accurate numbers has, as of January 2022, shown 4,003 individuals to be experiencing homelessness 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.

Including Cottage Grove’s own 17 warming shelters, the county has a total of only 1,934 shelter beds to serve this population.

In his presentation, Meyers reported that Cottage Grove services like the mobile shower trailer have seen significant use, demonstrating a clear need in the community.

Community Sharing Warming Shelter data shows that, since the facility began regularly activating in December, 336 guests have used the shelter. Among those, only two came from Eugene, which Meyers said demonstrated that the services are aiding locals.

Case Law & Legislation

The latest efforts to address homelessness are not arbitrary. Court cases and state legislation have been forcing the hand of local governments since 2018.

That year, the case of Martin v. Boise in a Ninth Circuit Court ruling 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.

Making that shelter “practically available” is the current standard, but the subjectivity of the term is anticipated to be a gray area moving forward.

Also, the Oregon Legislature in 2021 passed House Bill 3115, which essentially codifies the Martin v. Boise ruling into state law. A significant difference it states is that, even if a city is not enforcing ordinances which are not in compliance, the city can be sued simply for having those ordinances on the books.

The bill will go into effect July 1, 2023.

In presenting to the Cottage Grove City Council, City Attorney Connelly added that the 2020 case of Blake v City of Grants Pass had tested the limits of the Martin v Boise case by drafting around enforcement requirements. The city claimed that they weren’t criminally sanctioning people, but rather civil penalties were simply being applied.

“Instead of penalizing somebody for sleeping [in a public space], they were penalizing them for having essentially pillows and blankets,” explained Connelly. “So, it wasn’t the people they were targeting, it was their stuff.”

The judge in that case decided to clarify that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the city from punishing homeless people for taking minimal measures to keep themselves warm and dry while sleeping.

The case further expanded on practical alternatives, stating that a church-affiliated entity is not an alternative shelter if it has strict rules and requires mandatory attendance to church and other church-related activities. Warming shelters were also not considered reasonable alternatives.

Connelly said that these clarifications around Martin v Boise are essentially sending the message that local governments must start creating viable alternatives such as transitional housing.

Proposed Solutions

Considering the above factors, city staff have recommended changes to Cottage Grove city code as a basic first goal.

“If we don’t do anything else, that’s the thing we have to do,” said Meyers.

Staff have 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. She also recommended prohibitions on camping in a vehicle on a city right of way and outright banning camping in a tent or other non-vehicle.

As a general approach, the city’s attorney advocated for creating as many alternatives as possible to avoid making Cottage Grove another test case in the courts.

While changing city code was presented as a basic first action, Meyers proposed that the city take further steps to address homelessness.

“Taking the minimum action does not protect or enhance the quality of life in Cottage Grove,” he said.

As a first move, Meyers said he wanted to decommission current temporary shelter sites before May 1, 2022, referring to sites at City Hall and the Community Center.

Next, Meyers proposed creating a temporary low- to no-barrier service at the current Community Sharing Warming Shelter site, which would be managed by a third party between May and July.

Meyers also proposed developing an immediate low-barrier shelter site which could house 32 to 40 individuals from the community. He envisioned this happening in July and recommended city property on Highway 99 as a site.

In the future, he proposed that a second-step, medium- to low-barrier transitional housing site for 15 to 30 individuals could serve as a way to prepare people for permanent housing. City property at 443 North Douglas Avenue has been suggested for this project.

And finally, he recommended the city assist with the development of low-, very-low- and extremely-low-income housing units by working with a third-party organization with experience in this field.

Meyers and Connelly added that, because the messaging from the cases and legislation seems to be pushing for affordable housing options without any state-level aid, solutions would likely require regional coordination along with local problem-solving projects.

The council and staff discussed the possibility of collaborating with groups such as Carry it Forward and Homes for Good to participate in that regional solution.

Homes for Good is Lane County’s Housing authority and has been managing Cottage Grove sites Riverview Apartments and Legion Cottages.

Councilors expressed some concern that the topic was so deep and complex that it would be challenging to find solutions in the April 5 town hall.

Councilor Fleck acknowledged there are a great many viewpoints on the matter.

“What we have to do is come up with a compromise, one that’s going to make sense for everybody,” he said.


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