Council vote on Hwy 99 site postponed

Councilors opted to suspend council rules requiring a vote to ‘keep the conversation going’

In another council meeting this Monday (May 23) regarding the proposed Highway 99 homeless shelter site, a majority of the Cottage Grove City Council opted to suspend council rules in order to bring the item back at a later date.

A June 6 work session has been scheduled for more discussion on the topic.

At its May 9 meeting, the council had voted 4-2 to reconsider an April 25 motion to create a homeless shelter site on Hwy 99. The council had authorized the development of the shelter on April 25, but Councilor Chalice Savage, who had voted in favor of the action, motioned to reconsider the item on May 9, resulting in the item returning, by a required unanimous vote that session, to the table Monday night.

However, the item was brought back as a motion with a second already on the table, requiring that the motion be voted on before moving forward. Citing a lack of agreement on the development of the Hwy 99 site and a need for further discussion, the council suspended this rule for the item.

Councilor Kenneth Roberts was absent from the meeting.

Most of Monday night was taken up by public comment, during which about two dozen residents and interested parties voiced their opinions.

Public Comment

While opinions during public comments at city council meetings had weighed more heavily on the side of critics and opponents of the proposal, Monday night’s public comment included a mix of opinions advocating for both sides, most in support.

Resident Bruce Kelsh commented on the April 5 town hall, expressing a concern that the city council was not taking the public’s interest into consideration.

“I found the format extremely useful and everyone there had a chance to have their opinion expressed and listened to,” he said.

He pointed to the high level of support for the proposed shelter project from respondents at the town hall and, though acknowledging that he believed the plan was not perfect, “we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.

Resident Jackie Lester said she believed all were “united in our desire for a healthy and thriving community. To achieve this, we need to come together and focus our efforts on prevention of the root causes of food insecurity, unemployment, health care, childcare and … homelessness.”

She said she sympathized with the critique that homeless individuals’ barriers need to be addressed before giving them housing, “but for me, that means we need to first make sure that the individual is in a safe environment … The proposed shelter project would allow for that to happen.”

Resident Rob Dickinson encouraged the city to move forward on the proposed Hwy 99 site as not only the best ethical approach, but best for the community in general, giving people a chance to work toward the future.

“You can provide homeless individuals with the best opportunity to move out of homelessness and into better situations” with the city’s plan, he said.

Dickinson also defended the homelessness town hall format and pointed to the vast majority of attendees supporting a shelter with wraparound services.

Resident Susan Keaveny also reported that she attended the town hall and thought it was clear that the majority of the people in the room wanted the council to address the problem beyond minimum requirements.

“But since then, it seems like a smaller group of people — very vocal and intimidating — have been successful at scaring, intimidating, bullying our council into inaction and therefore the rest of us,” she said. “My question to you, the council, tonight is: Do you plan to disregard the sentiment that we expressed at the town hall that night?”

She appealed to councilors who cared about business and tourism, asking if the “poverty on display” in public areas was what they wanted tourists to see.

Keaveny also disagreed with the sentiment that it wasn’t the government’s role to deal with the problem.

“This is a public safety issue. It’s a public health issue. It’s a quality of life issue here in this town, not just for homeless people, but for me and for the rest of us here,” she said.

She called on the council to do its job in protecting the town.

Next, founder of Carry It Forward Arwen Maas-DeSpain addressed concerns expressed around low-barrier sites.

Carry It Forward is a Eugene-based nonprofit which serves unhoused people in Lane County and has been named as a possible service provider at the city’s proposed Hwy 99 site.

She spoke of the nonprofit’s experience running low-barrier camps in Eugene similar to the proposed Cottage Grove shelter.

“We start the very first day with camp rules and goal-setting,” she said, which involves keeping the environment clean, employing good neighbor policies (regulating behavior), providing 24/7 staff and camera coverage and partnering with law enforcement.

“We do have expectations and [users of a shelter] are not allowed to stay if they can’t follow the rules after maybe three or four tries, depending on how egregious the violations are,” she said.

On the concern that people from Eugene will flood into the community, she said she did not see it as a problem as the organization supports prioritizing Cottage Grove community members.

The nonprofit brings its own case management and housing navigation services as well as works with community partners, she said, like mental health and substance abuse resources.

“Ultimately, our goal is to get people off the street and get them stable and moving towards their greater goals and being able to give back to your community and the greater society,” she said.

Next, resident Christina Shew said she supported the proposed site as it addresses community concerns around the homelessness issue.

She said that the proposed shelter site would be the “first step towards helping people to help themselves. After all, when basic physiological needs like shelter are met, people are able to move forward to be independent members of the community.”

Providing a shelter with wraparound services, she said, would allow people that opportunity.

Barbara Evans, a Dorena resident, said the problem was not “home”lessness, but “house”lessness. She asked the council to experience camping in a tent themselves before making a judgement.

She spoke to the need to help people with mental health needs, like those who have trouble even communicating their problems.

She pointed out that young people find it nearly impossible to rise out of poverty and she wanted to know what the council was going to do about that problem.

Resident Kathleen Mattson expressed her concerns about the proposed site, citing the danger posed to children by behavior she attributed to homeless people, such as drug use. She worried that a homeless site would encourage more homeless to move into the community.

Resident Valeria Clarke said that, as a social worker and therapist, she believed it was up to “those who can to provide a solution for those who can’t” and that “being without a home is a health crisis.”

She spoke of the hurdles created by being homeless and the aid needed in order to lift someone out of it. Shelter, she said, was the best way forward, because addressing mental health or substance abuse issues was not a viable option for people living in tents.

Like previous speakers, she asked the council to consider the support for a shelter project expressed by attendees of the homelessness town hall.

Resident Fred Colgan said he agreed that homelessness was a big problem and could get worse and “I believe we are obligated to deal with it.”

He said political division has gridlocked the national government, but a small town like Cottage Grove can be a place “where democracy really can work.” In this, he encouraged the council to avoid taking hard positions and find compromise.

As a founding member of Beds for Freezing Nights, Colgan said “we shared the belief that it was unacceptable for someone to die of exposure in our town. And everyone I know in this town seriously supports the premise that we’re obligated to help our neighbors and to help our friends; to help people who don’t have anything.”

Resident Patrick Cartwright, a business owner in the Industrial Park, which is nearby the proposed Hwy 99 site, restated his previously expressed opposition to the plan due to security concerns.

“I would urge that we hold more conversations to help this go forward,” he said. “I’m not opposed to a homeless shelter. I’m opposed to a homeless shelter where it’s going to be placed.”

He also said that, if the city is going to support the proposed site, it should also support increased security in the area.

Destiny Duerst, a resident of Cottage Village, said she was thankful to be part of the housing program.

The Cottage Village co-op housing project has put 14 people into tiny homes on Madison Avenue, where residents participate in the community democratically.

Having a place of her own, she said, has dramatically improved her life.

She spoke of the need for people to have a second chance and said she would personally feel safer in Cottage Grove to see less people on the streets.

Aislinn Blackstone, another resident of Cottage Village, expressed her appreciation for the housing co-op.

She spoke highly of the Eugene Mission project in that it required work and investment from those using the program. In this vein, she reported that members of her housing co-op were eager to give back to the community due to the sense of authorship and responsibility the project instills.

As someone who previously experienced homelessness, she critiqued the stigma that the homeless are lazy and don’t want to participate in society.

“But the reality is that we are the people in this room. We’re veterans. We’re disabled. We’re dog groomers. We fold clothes at Walmart for you. We do all of these things in this community and all we want is some extra support and help,” she said. “I don’t think that offering a safe place for someone to be able to live who is currently experiencing homelessness is too much of an ask.”

She said that, though the proposed Hwy 99 project would likely need to be amended over time, it would still provide necessary opportunities.

Next, resident Johanna Zee spoke in opposition to the plan, reporting that, in her own discussions with homeless individuals, most had said they would not use the proposed shelter.

She criticized the project coming up for a vote in city council without a proper vetting of what the program would look like and wanted to know a “low-barrier” would entail.

She said drug addiction and mental health services should be a priority and that using the shelter for this would be naïve.

Zee denounced Housing First and harm-reduction models stating that, as someone who had worked as a case worker and home health nurse, she found that people need strict boundaries when dealing with substance abuse.

She was also critical of Carry It Forward, saying that “if Carry It Forward has been working in Eugene, they haven’t done a very good job.”

She praised Eugene Mission’s model which allowed for two weeks of low-barrier access, but then requested users of the program to invest and participate.

As in previous public comments, Zee alleged that Councilor Mike Fleck had a conflict of interest in the matter due to his role as executive director of local nonprofit Community Sharing.

Resident Lisa Colgan said she has seen the problem of homelessness from several angles, among them as a founding member of Beds for Freezing Nights.

She appealed to a common desire for people to participate in caring for Cottage Grove and maintain its stability, but stressed that those values were under threat by not addressing the problem.

She acknowledged that the Hwy 99 site was an “imperfect option”, but “it is the best first step that you can take given the limitations you are working under.”

Resident Bill Christiansen reported that in his observation of a homeless camp site Sutherlin, alternative options were available and he recommended that Cottage Grove consider the model.

“I believe any plan needs to have structure, accountability and personal responsibility,” he said.

He advocated for any location but the Hwy 99 site which would be far from schools but closer to resources.

Resident Duncan Newberry brought up the high support for the Hwy 99 site at the town hall event and like others, said he had his reservations because the site was not perfect, but was still in support of the proposal.

“Simply doing nothing is not an option,” he said. “Homelessness is not going away just because we find it inconvenient.”

Addressing mental health and drug addiction, he said, is a challenge for those without a home, adding that access to affordable housing should be prioritized.

Resident Feather Boustead said she felt the proposal needed more time to be discussed and the community should pool its resources to find creative solutions, just as the city has done with Cottage Village.

“We do need housing that different from the usual standards,” she said.

Ruth Linoz, board member and president of Beds for Freezing Nights and executive director of South Lane Wheels, said she found the proposal to provide 24/7, year-round resource for the homeless population a need in the community.

She said the volunteer model of Beds for Freezing Nights made it unmanageable due to the need.

Linoz added that South Lane Wheels is interested in using the land by Trailhead Park (currently occupied with Pallet shelters) for a potential transit hub and supported the Hwy 99 project because South Lane Wheels could provide transportation to the site.

Finally, resident Bonnie Sano said she knew what it felt like to be homeless and from a dysfunctional home. Citing her experience helping women in need of stability, she believed there are not enough social workers to deal with the homeless issue in Cottage Grove and the proposed project would draw others in from outside the community.

She added that a Housing First model would harm neighbors and produce more problems for those the model intends to help.

Council Discussion

During the council’s discussion on the item, it was clear that there was still not a consensus on the topic.

Councilor Fleck began the council discussion by declaring a potential conflict of interest and responded to requests that he recuse himself.

As in previous meetings, he clarified that his organization had no intention of applying to manage the proposed site and that a potential conflict of interest still allowed for his participation in a vote and discussion.

Councilor Greg Ervin commented that he could not support using taxes for the Hwy 99 project and thought solutions should come out of the “generosity of individuals,” though he said he was in favor of protecting the city from litigation by complying with rulings and legislation in terms of policy changes.

Councilor Candace Solesbee began her comments by addressed a rumor that herself and councilors Ervin and Roberts had met with Councilor Chalice Savage prior to the previous meeting in which the reconsideration took place to sway her vote.

She denied that any such meeting or serial communication took place.

Solesbee also pointed out that the last meeting, in which the item was reconsidered, represented an act of good faith from councilors in opposition and it was not a “power play”, pointing to the council’s unanimous voted to bring the item back to the table when it could have easily been rejected in that moment.

However, she did call out a “community stakeholders” meeting which included City Manager Richard Meyers, Councilor Fleck and other community members, stating that she felt it represented a conflict of interest on the part of Councilor Fleck due to the alleged nature of the meeting’s discussion, which she said included disparaging comments about dissenting votes on the council.

“And so I question how that would affect someone that is also a stakeholder,” she said.

Solesbee went on to say she agreed with criticisms of the Housing First model and advocated for a Community First model or a two-week, low-barrier period at a shelter.

The problem with the Housing First model, she said, was putting people into housing without addressing crippling problems like drug addiction.

Lacking agreement on the issue, councilors then discussed a path forward to continue discussion on the proposed Hwy 99 site.

Councilor Fleck said he was in favor of making a committee or having more discussion to avoid “ending up with zero”.

The item on the table, however, was a reconsideration of the council’s April 25 item. As it had already been motioned and seconded at that meeting, council rules required a vote on the item before moving forward.

Based on Section 26 of the council rules which allow the city council by a majority vote to temporarily waive any provisions, Fleck motioned that the council suspend its rules on the item in order to continue discussion.

Councilor Ervin seconded, but Councilor Jon Stinnett, during discussion of the motion, said the council had been discussing the topic for far too long and the need to act was imminent.

“There’s a first step and that is finding a site for low-barrier shelter. Otherwise, we’re going to have people camping in parks. I don’t want anyone camping in parks,” he said. “We have to give an alternative or you need to openly disagree with counsel that says we do.”

Councilor Solesbee countered that she didn’t want to make a hasty decision around an issue that still had disagreement.

Councilor Fleck said he thought there was room for more discussion and acknowledged that councilors who had opposed the proposal at the last meeting voted in good faith, so supported withholding a vote.

The council then voted to suspend the rules for the item, with only Councilor Stinnett in opposition.

Councilors scheduled a work session on the topic for Monday, June 6 at 6 p.m. in the Council Chamber.

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