Vote to ‘reconsider’ Hwy 99 site stalls project plans

The city's property at 2205 Highway 99 was greenlit on April 25 for development of a low-barrier homeless shleter, but then reconsidered on May 9. (Photo by Damien Sherwood/Cottage Grove Sentinel)

May 12, 2022 — While the project to construct homeless shelter on city property on Highway 99 seemed on track to move forward since a vote to approve it last month, a vote Monday night to “reconsider” the item has put the project on pause.

In a split decision on April 25, councilors had voted 4-3 to approve construction of a low-barrier homeless shelter at 2205 Hwy 99.

On May 9, Councilor Chalice Savage, who had voted in favor of the action last month, motioned to reconsider the item.

Procedural rules required a unanimous vote to bring the item back to the table, which the council voted to do for its next scheduled council meeting.

Monday night’s outcome was an unexpected turn of events in the Cottage Grove’s continuing debate around homelessness.

The council met an hour early on Monday to conduct a work session discussing a draft RFP (request for proposal) which would stipulate standards and expectations regarding the site and its operation by a service provider.

A desire to continue discussion on the topic and avoid “rushing” the project served as motivation to reconsider the council’s previous approval of the site.

The work session discussion on the RFP is now in recess and the action item to approve construction of the Hwy 99 site will return to the council at its next meeting on May 23.

 

Draft RFP

The 36-page draft RFP proposes that a service provider operate the Hwy 99 site with 33 Pallet shelters and up to 40 community members experiencing homelessness.

The transitional, low-barrier emergency shelter would be operational 24 hours, seven days per week.

The project’s core values and standards state that it will follow “housing-first, low-barrier, harm-reduction, and trauma informed care program standards.” It also calls for an “equity framework” which states: “All programs must incorporate an equity framework in development of program design,

provision, and evaluation. Many services, programs, and policies systematically discriminate

against people with diverse racial, ethnic, and gender inequities. An equity framework aims to

address those disparities and achieve fairness for all.”

The property includes a 1,380-square-foot, single story building located on .59 acres of land, which is proposed to be renovated to include restrooms, showers, kitchen, administrative office, counseling and training spaces.

The draft RFP listed “minimum expectations” of operations as:

  • Staffing including day, swing, and night staff, security, maintenance, etc., as needed to meet the scope of work.
  • Maintain facility in accordance with any OHA habitability standards for emergency shelter.
  • Maintain facility in accordance with CDC guidance for congregate settings and comply with general COVID safety protocols.
  • Provide general upkeep of the facility including regular cleaning, minor repair and maintenance, etc.
  • Provide accommodation for pets, partners, and possessions in the operations and service model.
  • Provide access to essential services which meet basic needs including, but not limited to: restroom and showers, laundry, meals, hygiene supplies, transportation assistance, mail service, ID/documentation, and storage.
  • Develop policies and procedures (i.e. operations manual) for general operations of the facility.
  • Operator/Service Provider will be expected to comply with all scheduled and nonscheduled inspections, as well as complete scheduled maintenance.
  • No other structures other than the Pallet Shelters, existing permanent structures and shower trailer will be allowed on the property.

The target population for the shelter would be Cottage Grove community members experiencing homelessness with preference given to those who are 65 years or over; have medical/health needs or are veterans.

Services would include case management, housing navigation and peer support positions. The proposal also calls for a “warm hand-off” to other agencies or programs which can address particular needs.

In setting a length of stay, the RFP states that “individuals are expected to transition to permanent housing options as quickly as possible, with a goal of less than 120 days whenever possible, however there is no specific limitation on length of stay.

Those actively working to toward their housing goals, for example, may be given extensions, but permanent or long-term stays would not be permitted.

The project is also required to participate in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) managed by Lane County, which requires entering “all required data” into the system. The service provider would have to complete real-time, direct data collection and entry into the WellSky system.

As a low-barrier, housing-focused approach, the RFP calls for the operator of the site to screen individuals who come into the project based on eligibility criteria, but is restricted from denying entry to the project based on any of the following criteria:

  • Current or past substance use (though participants may not use or possess substances on the premises)
  • Presence of mental health disorders or issues, disabilities, or other psychosocial challenges, including non-compliance with taking prescribed or recommended medication
  • Criminal background or history, unless a participant poses an imminent threat to themselves, staff, or others
  • Previous program participation or experience, including previous bans from services
  • Lack of identification documentation
  • Lack of income or employment
  • Refusal to participate in treatment or services
  • Any other criteria thought to predict challenges/barriers to long-term housing stability or generally considered “difficult to serve.”

The service provider would further be barred from conducting drug or alcohol testing or screening, criminal background checks, or asking questions which would verify whether or not a participant is currently using substances or alcohol as a way of determining eligibility.

The RFP states that, at minimum, performance outcomes will include at least 25 percent of participants exiting to permanent housing and at least 70 percent of those exiting to a permanent destination remain permanently housed at six- and 12-month follow-ups

As far as funding, approximately $200,000 is available from city funds for the first year of the program (proposed as June 10, 2022 – June 30, 2023) including operations, services, one-time start-up costs, and administration.

The service provider would then assist the city in finding additional funds for operations in future years.

 

Council Discussion

In the work session, councilors who voted against Hwy 99 site continued to question several aspects of the project.

Councilor Candace Solesbee raised an issue regarding the definition of low-barrier sites, pointing out that there seemed to be a false understanding prior to the council’s vote on April 25 that the site would have to allow for intoxicated people.

City Attorney Carrie Connelly clarified that “there won't be barriers to entrance, but there can be requirements to remain,” adding that there is no strict definition of low-barrier – only case law interpretations.

“Martin v Boise does not require you to do anything,” she said, but “you can't manage your public space unless there's alternative shelter available. …  The policy question is: What kind of alternative shelter, if any, do you want to provide so that you can manage your public space?”

The option to provide alternative shelter, she said, would need to be low barrier in order to give the city the most options to manage the rest of public spaces.

Councilor Mike Fleck added that his understanding was that the low-barrier project was “the city’s best option to not get sued if we want to limit folks in our other public spaces.”

Solesbee also asked for clarification about the city’s liability around a site run by an independent contractor compared to a city-operated facility.

Connelly said an independent contractor would put the city in a better position in terms of liability.

Solesbee wanted to know if that would limit the city’s ability to step in should an issue come up, but Connelly stated that as long as the city sets clear standards, there would be space for the city to regulate the situation.

Councilor Kenneth Roberts asked hypothetically about a case where someone overdoses on the facility.

Connelly advised that the independent contractor would be ultimately be responsible in that case as well.

Councilor Greg Ervin wanted to know if the RFP reflected the highest possible barriers while still avoiding a lawsuit. That the city could do without posing a risk of getting sued.

Connelly said that it was based on Lane County’s language and that the city was welcome to test out its own theory on what constitutes low-barrier, “but it would be a magnet for challenge.”

Despite the RFP precluding elected officials from participating in the project, Councilor Mike Fleck for the record declared a potential conflict of interest as executive director of Community Sharing.

He said he shared some other councilor concerns around ensuring that participants in the project would be actively looking for housing while utilizing the services and pointed out that the RFP stipulates what the service provider is required to do, but not the participant.

Fleck and Ervin discussed the possibility of using stipulations around performance and outcomes as a way of regulating inefficiencies in this regard.

Councilor Solesbee said she did not see anything in the RFP establishing responsibility or accountability on the part of the participant and that it looked like people who use the shelter do not have to participate.

Additionally, she said that the RFP was so vague that she feared it would be out of the council’s hands once approved “and this is our one opportunity to outline what we truly want.”

She also thought making a contract for several years was a mistake.

The project calls for a three-year contract with a possible two-year extension.

Connelly pointed out to the council that a “termination for convenience” option in the RFP allows either party to terminate the agreement with a 30 days’ notice.

While Fleck agreed with Solesbee’s concerns, councilors did not come to an agreement on if the length of contracts should change.

Ultimately, Solesbee said she was firmly opposed to the RFP’s stipulations around drug use and background checks due to safety issues.

“I just think we have a responsibility to protect our citizens that live around there and people that we're trying to help,” she said.

Councilor Ervin added that he wanted a limit on possession of items so as to avoid over-accumulation, mental health checks upon entry and was concerned not to see age restrictions or rules about unaccompanied minors and

He also read aloud a public notice he wanted to see posted at the site which explained the reason for the site and its funding through taxpayers.

Councilor Fleck wondered if such a statement would be an effective motivation for people who want to better themselves.

After some back and forth on what background checks might entail, the work session was put in recess. Councilors intended to pick it back up after conducting their regular session that night, but public comments and later discussion during the “concerns from council” portion of the session ended with the entire prices delayed.

 

Public Comments

Comments from the public on Monday night were largely critical of the Hwy 99 site plan, as they have been in previous council meetings.

Resident Patrick Cartwright said that, as a business owner in the Industrial Park, he would have to spend at minimum $25,000 on upgrading his security as a result of the planned Hwy 99 site.

“I would have never moved my business from Creswell to Cottage Grove, knowing this was going to happen,” he said.

Besides theft concerns, he said the site would make for an unwelcome environment for potential customers, causing revenue loss, and that it would attract more homeless people from out of state.

He said that he and other business colleagues would form group to file an injunction against the project.

“I'm not against giving the homeless a place to be,” he added, noting that the Community Warming Shelter site would be a preferrable site.

Resident Bob Langles said that, in his experience helping people on the street get off drugs, there was a very low success rate and the city’s plan was flawed.

“Basically you're saying you want to copy something that Eugene is doing,” he said. “Giving them something like this, like we see in Portland and Eugene, is just enabling them. I know this firsthand.”

 He said it was important to invest in people who are trying to make right decisions first and to separate out those who would waste time in the system and make no attempts at bettering themselves. A drug rehabilitation program would be crucial, he said.

Resident Johanna Zee pointed to people who had said they would sell their homes, general community concerns and homeless people who said they would not use the site as evidence enough of the people’s voice.

Zee reported she had visited a self-governing, unregulated homeless site in Sutherlin and found its state to be concerning.

She said she wanted “truth and transparency” and criticized the RFP’s wording around equity.

“Basically, all this language of equity and disparity says that we're a really horrible racist community,” she said. “And I invite those writing this RFP to reword it specifically for this community.”

Resident Kathleen Mattson asked if the council couldn’t look over more options. She raised concerns about drugs, crime and crimes involving children due to the proximity of the site to the Cottage Grove High School and the extension of R Street, which runs by Bohemia Elementary School.

Resident Debbie Howell acknowledged the passions around the topic, thanked staff and councilors for their service and encouraged them to remember their role as servants of the public.

Resident Feather Boustead said she did not feel the council was representing the majority of the citizens.

“The taxpayers don't know the basic initial cost of this plan let alone the projected annual budget,” she said.

Boustead criticized the city’s Town Hall event as a “highly controlled, air-tight presentation” leading toward a particular outcome.

She added that the project felt rushed and that the city should embrace a community-first model rather than housing-first.

Resident Donovan Rose said he had benefited from the city’s homeless site at the Community Center as it had enabled him to find a full-time job.

He agreed with others who were calling for some kind of evaluation method to find out of people even want help.

“Because if they don't want help, it's not going to do any good,” he said.

For his own part, he said, “I need housing. I don't have access to a shower, I can't wash my clothes, I don't have anywhere to store food. So those are the types of things that need to be established.”

He said spending time on those homeless who wanted to help themselves was a preferrable strategy because “otherwise you’re wasting your time”.

 

Reconsideration

During the “Concerns from Council” portion of the meeting, Councilor Ervin pointed to a council rule which states that a council member who voted with the majority may move for reconsideration of an action at the same or following regular meeting. Once a matter has been reconsidered, no motion for further reconsideration can be made without unanimous consent of the entire council.

He noted that if someone were to reconsider, this would allow more time “for the community to have a robust conversation of its desire at it relates to this site.”

Councilor Solesbee reiterated her concern that the project was being rushed and that it was presented incorrectly as necessary when case law actually did not establish it as such.

“I feel like this is something that should not be rushed. This is something that we need to give serious consideration to,” she said.

Councilor Roberts said he was scared to death of low-barrier sites as he felt they did not include the kind of accountability needed, as in the program he himself benefitted from decades ago.

“I have a funny feeling that the train is going to come off the tracks,” he said.

Councilor Savage said that, although she was a “yes” vote on approving development of the Hwy 99 low-barrier site and still supported it, she felt the conversation was not yet over, especially after listening to the stream of public testimony at council meetings.

“I think we need to keep talking,” she said, and made a motion to reconsider the action.

Councilor Fleck cautioned the council against reconsidering as it could permanently lock the item up due to the requirement for a unanimous vote. He also pointed out that Councilor Jon Stinnett, who was a “yes” vote on the April 25 action, was not present.

“This is the only meeting that we have this opportunity to reconsider,” said Solesbee. “And the way that this happened in such a rush, I believe that we need to reconsider this.”

Savage’s motion was seconded and councilors Ervin, Solesbee, Savage and Roberts voted for the reconsideration. Councilor Fleck and Mayor Gowing voted against.

Following a five-minute recess to review the rules around reconsideration procedure, the April 25 item regarding the construction of the Hwy 99 site was brought back to the table. This time, the majority of the council voted in opposition, reflecting the same votes cast for the reconsideration.

Councilor Ervin then motioned that the council bring the same item back to the next council meeting, which the council unanimously voted to do, effectively saving the item from the limbo.

Considering the night’s turn of events, councilors decided to keep the work session on the draft RFP in recess.

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