Homeless shelter site gets green light

Approval to develop the site on Hwy 99 for a low-barrier homeless shelter narrowly passed a city council vote

In 4-3 vote on Monday night, the Cottage Grove City Council voted to approve development of the city’s proposed Highway 99 site for a low-barrier homeless shelter.

Councilors Kenneth Roberts, Candace Solesbee and Greg Ervin voted against the proposal, with councilors Mike Fleck, Jon Stinnett, Chalice Savage and Mayor Jeff Gowing voting in favor.

The council will see a draft RFP (request for proposal) at its May 9 meeting. The RFP will solicit proposals from contractors who could manage the site and the council will have a chance to amend the document before it goes out.

The vote follows months of several hours-long discussions among the council about the city’s proposed plan to address homelessness in the community as well as a town hall presentation which elicited public responses to questions about the city’s proposal.

As a result of an April 11 meeting where councilors hit a stalemate on the issue, the item returned this Monday on the agenda.

At its previous meeting, the council discussed at length 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.

The issue 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.

Oregon House Bill 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 and will ensure cities don’t criminalize homeless camping without offering people alternative places.

While Cottage Grove city councilors have generally agreed on the need for the code changes, the question of whether the city should take further action to address homelessness and what such a project might involve has been the subject of deep disagreement.

The city has made efforts at the Community Center and City Hall to provide a temporary alternative with minimal supervision, but “it is not sustainable and it is not something that we want to continue to do,” said City Manager Richard Meyers.

City staff have proposed using city property at 2205 Hwy 99 as a low-barrier shelter to assist homeless in the community with management and operation conducted by a contractor.

On top of this, the city’s recommendation before the council this Monday included supporting the continued temporary location of the eight campsites at the Community Center and the five campsites at City Hall until completion of the basic improvement at the Hwy 99 in early June. It also recommended working with Homes for Good to pursue the development of low-income housing on city property at 443 North Douglas Avenue.

In terms of cost, $211,00 would be reimbursed to the city’s street SDC (system development charge) fund while preparation of the Hwy 99 site was estimated at $60,000. Around-the-clock management and program services were estimated at $200,000 per year with a contractor and property cost for the low-income housing site was estimated at $275,000.

Ultimately, the council voted to authorize only the first portion of the recommendation, namely the development of the Hwy 99 property as a low-barrier site.

The narrow passage of the plan on Monday reflected the divisiveness of the issue not just within the city council, but among the public as well.

At the town hall on April 5, 80 percent of respondents approved of the proposal for the city property site on Hwy 99 to be used as a low-barrier site with wraparound services. Critics of the town hall have since voiced disapproval of its methods, charging that the format was biased and leading toward a predetermined outcome.

During public comments on the item at the council meeting, 14 residents expressed both support and disapproval over the proposal, most in opposition.

Public Comment

Resident Rob Dickinson voiced his support of the Hwy 99 site, applauding the information presented at the town hall and pointing to the housing crisis as a main driver of homelessness.

“Doing nothing is not a workable option and will lead to the outcomes that people most want to avoid,” he said.

Resident Dennis Tucker shared his own experiences in trying to help homeless people and spoke of the futility in efforts such as homeless camps.

“You’re not solving anything by putting a big camp down there where some of the rest of us have to put up with it,” he said.

Resident Kathleen Mattson said she did not think it would be helpful for the homeless to have the proposed services because they would take advantage of them and behavior problems would not be addressed, resulting in a perpetual issue. She also worried about the exposure of children to homeless people.

Resident Dan Boustead said it was important to know “when we’re treating a symptom versus addressing the core problem.”

He spoke of societal disintegration, in particular the breakdown of families and absent fathers, as a salient cause of cycles of homelessness.

He advocated for a “community-first model” as an ideal way of creating an “upspiral of hope”, adding he did not feel the housing-first model was the right path.

“I do believe a successful community-first model will attract those ready for integration, and based on their success, will be a positive influence to many of those who are watching from the street,” he said.

Resident Bill Christiansen reiterated a point he had made in a previous meeting that “structure, accountability and personal responsibility on the part of the person in need” was necessary for any attempt to address the problem.

He also worried that the city’s proposal was being “pushed through” and encouraged the council to make sure they were doing it for the right reason.

Resident Dale Gangl disapproved of the town hall because people did not get a chance speak, questioned why the city would push for a proposed site next in close proximity to Cottage Grove High School, and further asked why North Regional Park was not an option.

He also accused Councilor Fleck of making “a profit off the homeless” due to his position as executive director at the nonprofit Community Sharing and asked that the councilor recuse himself from the discussion.

Resident Bernie Donner said he felt the homeless needed to “learn to live economically and have basic work opportunities” and that the proposed site was not the answer.

Resident Johanna Zee rejected implications in the broader community discussion that those opposed to the project don’t have compassion; she encouraged people to be open-minded to different opinions.

She criticized plans which reinforce negative behavior, such as needle exchanges, and said drug addiction problems among the homeless population would not be solved by a housing-first model.

“You can’t put them in a house and expect them to take care of that house,” she said.

She also asked Fleck to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest and asked City Manager Meyers to step down.

Resident Debbie Howell opposed the Hwy 99 site as it was a “liability waiting to happen for the city” due to the lack of safety for pedestrians.

She said she had spoken with homeless people in the area and reported that none of them intended on going to the Hwy 99 site.

She asked why the city couldn’t apply for grants to address the challenges for people with mental health issues instead.

Resident Venice Mason thanked the city staff and council for its “sense of urgency”, adding that she had personally benefited from services as a homeless member of the community.

She made an appeal to stop referring to homeless people with otherizing terms and recognize them as members of the community.

Referring to the county’s “Homeless by Name List” which identified 188 homeless people in the community, she asked the council to consider: “If 188 high school students, or 188 Lions Club members, or 188 anybody — suffering, bleeding, drug addicted, falling down, drunk and rowdy in the streets — if we would just let that continue.”

She criticized the city’s current temporary sites and “dog kennels” and advocated for the Hwy 99 site as perhaps not ideal, but immediately and urgently needed.

“People are homeless for a number of reasons, many of which, except for being a veteran, I’ve experienced myself,” she said, “and any homeless person will tell you that there is an order of priorities.”

She listed battered women, veterans and single adults as those most in need of services.

Resident Bonnie Sano said that she had also experienced homelessness and was skeptical of the plan as it would bring more homeless people in, referencing the likely upcoming drop of the federal Title 42 policy, which allows border authorities to turn migrants back their home countries because of the public health crisis.

She worried that drugs and human trafficking could come with an influx of homeless people and she urged the council to postpone the plan.

Resident Jan Ogsbury said she was in support of the town hall proposals and did not feel “duped’ at the event, though she believed that parked, disabled vehicles should not be disallowed as it would take away a person’s shelter.

Resident Steve Aman said he felt a responsibility to protect the children of the community. As other cities have seemed to be unable to get a handle on their homeless situations, he was concerned the Hwy 99 site would create more problems.

“I have compassion for people who have problems,” he said, but “I am highly opposed to the city funding homelessness.”

Resident Mickey Pattengale said he acknowledged the compassion in the room, but accused the city manager of conducting a biased town hall. He also criticized the city’s temporary camping sites as ill-managed, pointing to reports that denizens had been using open flames in their tents.

He told the council to think about the community and consider the kind of town future generations will grow up in.

“It’s about the children,” he said, telling the council to “wake up”.

Council Discussion

Councilor Fleck began the council discussion by declaring a potential conflict of interest, as opposed to an actual conflict of interest.

An actual conflict of interest involves a public official’s direct conflict between their duties and private interests. A potential conflict of interest arises in cases where a public official’s private interests may only hypothetically conflict with their official duties. Under a potential conflict of interest, public officials may still vote and participate in discussion.

“Our agency theoretically could apply for an RFP to do this shelter; we have no intention of doing that,” he explained.

Councilor Solesbee then addressed the city’s attorney Carrie Connelly directly and reported that Councilor Fleck had privately told her that he agreed with some of Councilor Ervin’s and Solesbee’s opinions (which are opposed to the city’s low-barrier site plan), but would be fired from his position at Community Sharing if he said so.

Fleck denied he had said that.

Connelly commented that she did not see a conflict of interest in any case.

“You all have a vested interest in this community, you all come from different perspectives and that is what elected officials are supposed to do,” she said. “You’re supposed to share your perspective, you’re supposed to educate the rest of the council, you’re supposed to provide a broader, different spectrum of ideas. So, I haven’t heard anything that causes me concern, but I do want us all to understand that we are going to have different thoughts based on the way that you base your positions and your expertise in the city.”

Fleck went on to address accusations made by audience members regarding his own intentions, speaking of his years of service as a councilor and executive director at Community Sharing.

“I heard somebody over there tell me how I feel and what it is I do,” he said. “I’ve served up here for 20 years. I’ve given more hours and more time to this community than many people in our town and how dare you judge me?”

He promptly apologized and acknowledged the high emotions in the room.

“The whole point that we’ve been discussing is if we have unmanaged camps in our town, which is if we do nothing, that’s what we’re going to end up with: we’re going to end up with unmanaged camps in our parks,” he said.

Addressing claims that the proposed site would pile up with needles, he stated that managed sites do not see these problems and made the case that a low-barrier entry point with case management was needed to get people on their first step to affordable housing.

Further, he said the project would be fiscally smart by saving on clean-up costs, police hours and keeping people out of jail.

“This is the decision that’s going to have the least impact on our community,” he said, in support of the city’s proposal. “And I hope folks will see that down the road.”

On those applying for the city’s RFP to manage the site, he said priority would be given to people in the community to avoid an influx from metro areas.

He pointed out that in the Community Sharing Warming Shelter’s 29 nights of operation over the winter season, only two people from out of town used the service.

Youth Advisory Council (YAC) representative Emma McDonald, a Cottage Grove High School junior, said she had seen a lot of disrespect toward others around the passionate subject and asked the audience members to reflect on personal behavior, at which point some in the audience audibly groaned and some walked out.

She began to discuss concerns around the Hwy 99 site and its proximity to the high school, but at a jeer from the audience calling her “Meyers’ pet”, she stopped talking.

From there, councilors spent much of their discussion that night revisiting arguments from previous discussions, but with some refined points. Some reported they had spoken with homeless members of the community as well.

Councilor Roberts reiterated his concern about a low-barrier site and said had spoken with homeless community members who said they would not use the proposed site.

“I think we need a program that’s going to benefit the community in a way where we’re actually going to change lives,” he said, relaying his own success with a program which saved him from homelessness and drug addiction 32 years ago.

He advocated for a high-barrier program and “tough love”, worrying that the city’s plan was not fully thought out and would instead enable cycles of bad behavior.

“I want people to have the same opportunity that I had,” he said. “We need a bold program that is different from everybody else.”

Councilor Solesbee reiterated her opposition to a low-barrier site.

“It’s not that I don’t want a solution I honestly do. What I don’t want is to recreate what’s going on in other places,” she said.

Solesbee said she had spoken personally with a homeless person with whom she had attended high school. The person relayed to Solesbee that drug addiction was a large issue among the homeless population and felt it was dangerous at the city’s Community Center site.

Solesbee said that when she saw the friend again, they had recently come into money and so was spending it on free drinks for strangers at a bar.

Solesbee reported she had also spoken with another homeless person who was once a successful carpenter, but then went through a divorce and fell into drug addiction. The man said he wanted to get help, but would not use a low-barrier site because it would facilitate his addiction. He also said going to the Community Shelter site would be humiliating.

Solesbee said her impression was that drug addiction was a major problem and that people needed individualized care rather than “blanket” responses.

Councilor Ervin said that his “baseline conviction hasn’t changed” because he didn’t think the city’s plan was the right use of taxpayer money and it lacked a “moral component”.

He said he was still a “no” vote on the proposal, but said he thought there were practical things the city could do and wanted to continue the discussion.

Councilor Savage said she liked the idea of the Hwy 99 site, but agreed with Councilor Roberts that it should not be low-barrier, repeating her phrase from the last council meeting that there should be “skin in the game”.

“I would rather do it right than backpedal,” she said, adding that the council would benefit from a work session as the body needed more information before making a decision.

Councilor Fleck pointed out the possible issues that could arise if the council decided to do nothing for now, in particular unmanaged camping in city parks despite a time, place and manner restriction.

He said he had no problem with a low-barrier site. He acknowledged drugs can be a problem, though he felt drugs were not necessarily a cause of homelessness, but often an aspect of it.

He said a major barrier, in his experience, is that homeless people need an open door so that someone can begin working with them and he was concerned that there would not be the necessary participation at a high-barrier site.

Councilor Solesbee recommended using time, place and manner parameters to control the issue by setting a dusk-to-dawn rule at local parks “and then that will help us with the clean-up if they have to pack it up every day.”

The effort could further be aided by recruiting volunteers and other nonprofits to look for solutions and addressing needs, she said.

City Manager Meyers then addressed councilors’ comments around the low-barrier issue.

“If you move to a barriered approach, you are not satisfying Martin v Boise, because you created a shelter facility that would not be recognized as an alternative location,” he said. “The purpose of [low-barrier] is to get them in and start doing that training. That’s why the house is important. That’s why they’ve got the rooms for counseling and education, and moving forward to try to get people addressed into the proper channels that they need to be in so they can start making the progress.”

He added that a low-income housing agency like Homes for Good would be needed to address final steps toward permanent housing.

Councilor Solesbee questioned the interpretation of the court ruling regarding the need for a low-barrier site in order to comply with the need for alternative shelter. 

Connelly clarified alternative shelter definitions, referring to the court case Blake v Grants Pass.

“If you don’t have low-barrier shelter available, then you cannot push people out in the parks,” she said. “So having a low-barrier available is a reasonable alternative.”

Alternatives such as warming shelter sites, which are not open consistently, and sites with religious requirements do not qualify under the interpretation either, she added.

Solesbee said she wanted a second opinion on the reading of the law regarding barriers.

“All we have to go on is reasonableness determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including the impact of the law on persons experiencing homelessness,” said Connelly. “And so, the common understanding is that for shelters that don’t allow pets, that’s a barrier. That’s not a ‘perfectly reasonable’ place.”

Solesbee said she was fine with allowing spaces for couples and pets, but drew the line at drugs.

Councilor Stinnett said that, as the legal landscape has changed, something must be done. Otherwise, “our parks will be our low-barrier sites.”

He worried that enforcing sobriety would be unfeasible and, although he thought Councilor Roberts’ program sounded preferrable, his was a county-funded operation and sounded “intensive, expensive and difficult.”

He said he was concerned about the Hwy 99 site because of the location and safety issues and he was favorable to the current Community Sharing Warming Shelter site.

Youth representative McDonald added that she did not think that putting a homeless shelter in the general vicinity of the high school would be a problem.

Councilor Ervin said he agreed that the city had to take some action to comply with the law, but did not think it needed to do much more and it would be expensive to comply with the current interpretation of Blake v Grants Pass.

He advocated instead for trusting the community to come around to mitigate the problem, including involvement of law enforcement. Structured community programs with a vision for re-entering society, he said, would be a better direction.

Meyers responded, saying that everything Ervin called for is done by Carry It Forward and other groups with a low-barrier approach, including structure and rules on sites that acclimate people into a lifestyle of self-reliance.

“We’ve got to re-educate and get them back into those hopeful situations,” he said.

Request for Information

Much of the final leg of the three-hour discussion revolved around a desire from some councilors to get more information on what the low-barrier project would  look like before making a decision. Some also made requests for a work session.

On the question of the price tag for the project and what services it would buy, Meyers said they wouldn’t see a breakdown until proposals came back from an RFP and the city needed the councilors to authorize that first.

Councilor Roberts worried that the council would get gridlocked again at the point of agreeing on an RFP and reiterated a desire to get more information before making a decision.

“The people I’ve talked with, they just want know how we’re going to run this thing. What’s wrong with asking that? You want to get a vote from me? I want to be able to answer those questions to the people,” he said.

Meyers said city staff did not know because there are several organizations and they would each use a different approach depending on which site the council decided on.

Councilor Fleck said the goals of all agencies would effectively be the same in any case and that he would welcome presentations from them.

Councilor Solesbee said she did not feel she was getting the answers she needed in order to vote her conscience that day.

Councilor Stinnett pointed out that the council did not even agree on the need for a low-barrier site, much less how it would be run, so the point may be moot anyway.

Solesbee added, “I would like to know what the statistics are on low-barrier versus high-barrier and success rates, how long people are homeless, and how many people we help doing those types of camps. I think that’s our due diligence. We need to know. And to vote on a site right now, without agreeing on that, I don’t want to see us spend money on a site that we may turn south if we cannot agree on low-barrier or high-barrier.”

Meyers said the comparison would not be helpful because it is comparing two completely different facilities.

“If we’re going to have contractors come in and talk to you, we need some basic information for them to base what they’re going to talk to you about,” he said. “If you’ve got a location, that’s going to be helpful for them. If you know that we’re going to do a low-barrier site, that’s going to be helpful for them. They’re not going to come and be ready to talk about everything across the board in homelessness because there are so many different pieces to the puzzle.”

Councilors Ervin and Solesbee said they only wanted to change the code and do nothing else at that point.

For his part, Councilor Stinnett said he was strongly opposed to letting the city’s parks fill up with campsites and stressed the need to build a shelter as an alternative.

Still, Solesbee said she needed more information.

“I’d like to be sold on a shelter,” she said. “If you want me to buy into this, then I want to hear what it entails. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

In discussing whether or not to hold another work session, it was determined that, because there was too much disagreement on a low-barrier site, it would be pointless.

Around the three-hour mark in the discussion, Councilor Fleck said it was time for the council to make a decision one way or the other and made a motion to approve the city’s proposal as presented on the memorandum.

Stinnett said he preferred the warming shelter site but would rather have the Hwy 99 site than nothing and so suggested an amendment to the motion that the city only develop the Hwy 99 site for now and sort out other details later.

Fleck agreed to the amendment and the council held its split vote.

With the site approved for development, Meyers said the city would come back with a draft RFP at the May 9 council meeting where the council could discuss the RFP process and more details about site management. At that point councilors will have the opportunity to modify a number of points including the scope of work and evaluation process. If approved, the RFP could be put out as early as the following week.

In the meantime, city staff will begin infrastructure development on the approved site.

Video News