The public got its first chance to see the city’s Pallet Shelters up close on Tuesday during an open house event for the new Community Sharing Warming Shelter.
City staff and program representatives were on hand to answer questions as people milled about the site on N 12th Street.
“This is kind of a proving test that shows this will work as an emergency place,” said City Manager Richard Meyers.
A collaborate effort between the city, county and local nonprofits, the program is replacing Cottage Grove’s previous sheltering service for the homeless during freezing nights.
Community Sharing assumed responsibility for the project this fall when shelter provider Beds for Freezing Nights stated it would be unable to provide its services this year.
The sheltering nonprofit remains a supporting entity for the upcoming program, which is due to be ready for activation in January.
Eighteen shelters now stand prepared on the fenced site and the modular designs allow for a maximum capacity of 38 beds. Coming in two sizes, 64 and 100 square feet, the city has 15 of the smaller units and three of the large set up at the site.
Amenities in the structures include beds, electrical outlets, a heater, air conditioner, smoke detector, shelf space and lockable doors.
The shelters are manufactured by the Washington-based company Pallet. Made from aluminum and plastic composite materials, the structures are billed as resistant to rot, durable and easy to disinfect for day-to-day use.
They are built to be an efficient, safe and affordable option for temporary cottage-style housing. Taking only about 30 minutes to set up, the insulated shelters can be snapped together on site.
The new site comes complete with sanitizing stations, portable bathrooms and there are plans to include a mobile shower/restroom trailer, also managed by Community Sharing, at the site in the future.
People using the shelters will have to adhere to rules including the prohibition of drug use and refraining from cooking or smoking indoors.
No food prep will take place at the site, so prepared food will be brought in when needed.
Keeping with Beds for Freezing Nights’ activation threshold, the Community Sharing Warming Shelter will open when nights dip to 29 degrees Fahrenheit or below and will be open from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following day.
The community will be alerted 48 hours in advance of activations.
Beds for Freezing Nights Board President Ruth Linoz pointed out in an October Cottage Grove City Council meeting that the group’s criterion for activation at 29 degrees or below encourages priority use of Eugene’s Egan Warming Center and thus reduces the shelter-seeking traffic from outside areas.
The city council had previously voted to purchase the shelters from Lane County using the city’s federal coronavirus relief funds. However, it later came to light that because the county had already purchased the shelters using CARES Act funds, Cottage Grove could not use the same funds to procure them from the county.
Currently the county retains ownership of the shelters and is lending the facilities to other cities such as Florence and Oakridge as well.
Meyers said that despite not owning the shelters outright, he was confident the county would allow them to remain in the city long-term.
“I’ve already got a number of people that are saying, ‘That makes a lot of sense for you just to store them and keep them,’” he said. “Because then if there’s an emergency or some situation, it’s easier for [the city] to keep them rather than [the county] bring them all the way down to Eugene and bring them back.”
Instead of using the federal relief funding to purchase the shelters, Meyers said the city has found other COVID-related uses for the money.
Site preparation and infrastructure setup for the shelters themselves came out to around $100,000, he said, while other relief funds were used for projects like upgrading the air purification systems in city buildings.
The funding must be used by the end of the year or it will be returned to the county, said Meyers.
The shelter’s season runs from Nov. 1 to March 31. At the end of the season, the Pallet Shelters will be housed with the city and the site will be opened up to other possible uses during the off-season.
Meanwhile, the shelter structures will be standing by in case a need for them arises.
“These are going to be available if there’s a wildfire or there’s some kind of emergency,” said Meyers.
Though transitional housing has been addressed as a need in Cottage Grove, Meyers said he envisions more solid structures for that purpose.
“I’d want to build an actual stick building with better insulation which is more durable,” he said. “So you can have transitional housing that’s the more permanent stuff that people can move into and live in until they are ready … and move into a tiny home or something.”
The Community Sharing Warming Shelter also satisfies a standard established by a circuit court decision a year ago.
On Dec. 16, 2019, a Supreme Court decision to deny a petition to review Martin v. City of Boise finalized a significant holding by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which protects the right for homeless people to sleep in public spaces without reprisal.
The circuit court ruling held that if a homeless person has no option of sleeping indoors, a city cannot cite or punish him or her for violating an ordinance disallowing sleeping outside in a public space.
With the establishment of the Community Sharing Warming Shelter, Meyers said local police could now use the site as a tool in directing the city’s homeless population to a safe and warm place.
Providing Community Sharing’s training schedule for new staff stays on target, the warming shelter may be ready to open for freezing nights as early as Jan. 7.
Making sure there are enough volunteers and staff on hand when a freezing night comes around has been a persistent challenge for warming shelters, however.
“When I talked to Beds for Freezing Nights, they had a volunteer pool of about 80 volunteers,” said Community Sharing’s Site Coordinator DeForest Rolnick-Wihtol. “And even with that large of a pool, they often struggle to get enough volunteers to open.”
Like any nonprofit, Community Sharing is welcoming of more volunteers and is still looking for people to fill paid staff positions.
“We would love volunteers,” said Community Sharing Executive Director Mike Fleck. “We would also love for community groups, if they wanted, to bring food in to give folks.”
Check online at communitysharing.org to view the warming shelter’s activation status or find more information about volunteering.
Fleck and Rolnick-Wihtol can also be reached by phone at 541-942-2176.
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