Editor’s note: A town hall on this topic will have taken place after The Sentinel’s press deadline this week. Coverage of this event as well as the city council’s April 11 meeting regarding this issue will appear in The Sentinel’s April 14 edition.
As Cottage Grove’s debate around homelessness reached a critical point this week with a town hall discussion, residents and city councilors alike have been grappling to come to a full agreement on what precisely the city should do, if anything, about the rising problem.
While a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision and upcoming Oregon law force the city into making certain code changes, there is still disagreement on how proactive the city should be and in what manner anything ought to be done.
A recently adopted “Homeless by Name List” method to record 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.
As part of an effort to address the nearly 200 homeless who may use certain public land in accordance with the court ruling, the city has a proposed transitional housing site on Highway 99 at the southern end of city limits.
A household living immediately adjacent to the proposed site, however, has spoken out in protest.
“I just see it going horribly,” said homeowner Lisa Enders.
While opposed to the solution, Enders is no NIMBY. She was the lead medic in CAHOOTS and cross-trained as a crisis worker, 15 full-time years in all. Her housemate and tenant Donald Norton was a volunteer with CAHOOTS for many years as well.
The CAHOOTS program was launched in 1989, developed as an innovative community-based public safety system to provide mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
The program mobilizes two-person teams consisting of a medic (a nurse, paramedic or EMT) and a crisis worker who has substantial training and experience in the mental health field.
Enders’ and Norton’s past in working on the front lines with the homeless population gives them both some unique insight into possible pitfalls of programs designed to mitigate the problem.
“So, I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I am anti-homeless, or that I don’t have compassion. I fully do,” said Enders.
The housemates’ concerns boil down to a concern for safety and a lack of trust that the transitional housing program will be effective.
“Everyone will be directly affected by it in some capacity in the city,” said Norton. “Obviously, there’s going to be some effect. But we, unfortunately, will bear the brunt of all of it.”
Over the course of two sessions in February and March, city staff and the Cottage Grove City Council have discussed what addressing homelessness in Cottage Grove might look like.
Necessary city code changes due to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Martin v Boise decision aside, staff and council have also deeply explored what a transitional housing program might look like.
The court ruling prohibits the city from preventing people from sleeping on certain public lands. In order to prevent those lands from being used, city staff and councilors have explored shelter options.
Though no consensus was reached by the council during these sessions, there was an agreement that exacerbating the problem needed to be avoided, with the homelessness situations in Eugene and Portland often cited as cautionary tales.
“I’d like to see something that is bold and different, something different than what other communities are doing,” said Councilor Kenneth Roberts in the February work session. “I think we can lead the way here in the great State of Oregon and help change lives.”
Initial proposals were to create a transitional housing pathway with a no-/low-barrier site and a second high-barrier site which would prepare clients for permanent housing, though that has since changed.
The current proposal does away with the high-barrier site and instead focuses on a one-stop-shop with wraparound services.
As a no-/low-barrier site, the intent would be to first get people in the site and get them stabilized.
“They can come in intoxicated, they can come in under the influence of drugs, but they can’t bring those on to the property, just like the (Community Sharing) warming shelter,” said Meyers.
Test cases since Martin v Boise have also established that alternative sites must not have barriers, such as religious requirements, for the alternative to be viable.
After considering several sites, city staff settled on a piece of city property at the southern edge of the city limits on Highway 99.
“[It’s] where we can move in quickly, actually have a place where our contractor could do education and training and counseling and work on getting people back into work and getting them into permanent housing,” said Meyers, highlighting the housing factor as crucial to an effective program. “Because if you’re going to have a successful program, you’ve got to be moving people into work and into permanent housing. And so that’s the key piece that we’re trying to work towards. We don’t want to build a shelter just to shelter people. The shelter needs to have that wraparound and those functions that are moving people into that direction.”
Meyers pointed to this distinction as separating Cottage Grove from often-cited failures to address the problem in Eugene and Portland.
The goal, then, would essentially be to elevate people out of a survival mode, putting an emphasis on developing skills which would get them back into the direction of working in the community, being a part of the community and moving toward permanent housing.
Because the causes and conditions of people in a homeless state are so vast, wraparound services would have to be able to address both broad and particular needs. Thus, networking with groups like White Bird and South Lane Mental Health for counseling would be a must.
The housing structure which already exists on the Hwy 99 property would be used to provide such services under the proposal.
As for shelter, the city has an order on the way for more Pallet shelters, the same which are currently being used at the Community Sharing Warming Center. The current plan is to place 33 shelters on the Hwy 99 site, enabling up to 40 people to stay there.
Current designs also call for gardening space, where residents will take responsibility and commit to doing some work.
The city is in dialogue with nonprofits Carry it Forward, St. Vincent DePaul and SquareOne Villages to help provide such services.
Carry it Forward already has a volunteer who visits with the city and has others ready to staff a site if the project should move forward, Meyers said. He added that the group’s vast network connections make it an attractive partner in the project.
If approved, the project would begin as early as this summer and finish possibly this fall or early next year.
Meyers admits that the site is not flawless and concerns will have to be addressed.
“There’s going to be challenges and we’re going to try to address those challenges as best we can,” he said. “We have to make something work and this is the only one that has most of the boxes checked.”
It is also possible the site will serve only as a temporary facility until a better option can be found, he said, such as finding a site closer to helpful services.
The proposed site for the program is on a piece of city property which was annexed into the city in order to accomplish a long-term goal of punching R Street through to the Industrial Park.
This is where Enders and Norton have their first issue.
The city sent neighbors in the area a letter of intent in 2019, which gave residents a chance to weigh in on the construction plan with R Street.
“They afforded us 14 days to object to this plan,” said Enders. “So why would we object, right? You know, it’s not going to bother us. We have so much traffic anyway, what’s the difference?”
Recently, the residents there learned that a homeless shelter was being planned for that site instead.
“Nobody had informed any of us about the homeless shelter and I’m angry about that,” she said.
Enders and Norton said they have seen improvements done on the property for the past year, making them wonder how long the plan has been in the works.
Besides feeling deceived, Enders and Norton say the safety and effectiveness of the site are their primary concerns.
As former CAHOOTS volunteers, both Enders and Norton view an increase in incidents as an inevitability.
Some 200 feet of yard separates the neighbors’ house from the proposed site.
“The low-barrier issue scares me because nobody is making sure that anyone around there is going to be safe,” she said, citing a city council discussion where it was said that many of the homeless needed to be in a state hospital due to mental health issues. Enders worries that staff will not be able to adequately address such problems.
She said she has witnessed volunteer-based camps with little oversight in Eugene. “They didn’t work out well,” she said.
Also, the highway strip already sees plenty of theft and trespassing, according to the housemates.
“Our biggest concern is that because we have an overwhelming number of people now, that number will soon multiply,” Norton said.
And because the city limit ends at the Hwy 99 city site, houses beyond that must wait on the response of the Lane County Sheriff’s Office for emergency calls. The quickest response they’ve seen is two days, said Enders.
“And so, for us, we have to rely on ourselves for protection,” said Norton.
When discussing safety, Norton and Enders were worried not only for themselves, but the people who may end up staying at the city’s shelter.
They said they have seen two or three pedestrians hit by their house in the dozen years Enders has lived there.
Also, Enders, who works close to the city’s homeless shelter at the Community Center, considers that project a total failure due to the amount of problems which have arisen there, including theft, drug use and harassment.
Enders said a solid infrastructure of support is a necessity for any successful endeavor, but she was not convinced the city was on a path toward providing that.
“I’m really worried that this whole move out of town is about out of sight, out of mind,” she said, particularly concerning those with mental health conditions. “When they’re out of town, and you don’t notice them anymore, and they’re not there, you’re not looking at them every day. How much of a priority are they going to be?”
She said that one pitfall she saw when working with CAHOOTS in Eugene was services not working on “homeless time”, in other words not adjusting to the immediate needs of a homeless client or making appointments for two months out. With a current staffing shortage in the mental health industry, meeting some of these demands are bound to be a challenge.
Norton added that accountability and discipline are key factors to any successful program and he worries that the Hwy 99 site will reproduce what has been seen at the Community Center.
The housemates worry, too, that the program will ultimately make the situation worse for the homeless who enter a doomed system.
Meyers, on the other hand, is more optimistic that the program will prove effective.
On safety, he felt there are enough resources to keep any incidents under control and that the proximate impact would be negligible.
“I don’t think it will increase, because our site is going to be in the city. If there is any issue there, we’ll know that that’s there,” he said. “I understand the concerns and I understand the fear there, but I also see that we will be addressing it and taking care of it and eliminating it as we move these people into other housing and get them off of the street, trying to live on survival mode. That will be reducing that impact as well.”
To minimize foot traffic, there are plans for a transportation option and food will be stored in the housing structure as well, to prevent residents from frequently walking down the highway to stock up. Also, when R Street eventually goes in, there will be an alternative, safer route, he said.
Though the city has been addressing such concerns as they come up in discussion, Norton said this approach to correction still only results in “a drop in the bucket” considering the numerous problems which come along with shelter sites.
“So when it’s overwhelming like that, it becomes problematic,” he said. In the end, he fears the city’s solution is only a stopgap as these approaches have been tried before and failed. “We all have compassion. I think, for us living out here, we want nothing more than for people to have shelter as a basic human right. They deserve that. … But the way that we do it now by just allowing this to happen just doesn’t work. And that’s the unfortunate reality, is no matter how much they try, it’s going to be the same. It’s going to turn into the (Cottage Grove) Library.”
While Meyers counters that the wraparound services will provide the infrastructure necessary to change lives around, there will still always be those who won’t benefit from even the best-made programs.
“We’ve got them camping around here, people who are not going to be able to get back into a working environment,” said Meyers. “They’re not going to be able to get into a non-supportive housing environment because they’re individuals that, quite frankly, the State of Oregon and the mental health system has failed. They should not be on the street. It is inhumane for the state to dump some of these people on communities and say, ‘Hey, take care of this person, we’re not going to put them in or we’re not going to run the mental health hospital. We’re not going to staff all the beds that need to be staffed there. So, you guys get to deal with them.’ And some of those individuals need to be under that kind of extensive care and work.”
A Lane County Mental Health system has recently been proposed to address at the county level especially those who are chronically homeless, which may be a key ingredient to seeing more success and the local level.
Following the city’s April 5 town hall meeting on the issue, Cottage Grove city councilors may have a tough decision before them at the April 11 city council meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the council chambers in City Hall. Virtual attendance is also available through the city’s website.