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City of Sweet Home declares homeless state of emergency

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

The Sweet Home City Council voted unanimously at a Wednesday, March 1, special meeting to declare a homeless state of emergency.

“Sweet Home is gravely concerned about homelessness in our community and across the state,” a proclamation read. “Unsheltered homelessness has caused and is threatening to cause widespread injury to people and property, widespread human suffering, and has also caused widespread financial loss, with examples including, but not limited to picking up and disposing of debris, garbage, waste, and biohazards to restore land to its intended public use.”

The document continued that the city’s sanitation, health and safety were severely affected by its homeless population, adding that “grievous numbers of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness have perished and others continue to experience life-threatening conditions due to our inability to offer sufficient shelter and housing options.”

“The city, businesses and community have spent and continue to spend significant resources to address the impact of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and the city requires additional resources to flow to the city in a timely fashion,” it continued.

“I feel like there is a huge emergency right now with homelessness that does this make viable,” Councilor Dylan Richards said. “It’s still going on. It’s still a huge issue.”

“The entire state has a state of emergency, and I would actually encourage every single city in the state of Oregon to declare (one),” City Manager Kelcey Young added. “This is actually a larger issue, and this is a way that we can make our voices known. It’s definitely an issue that, while we have made tremendous progress, is in no way, from my perspective, fully resolved.”

According to Councilor Angelita Sanchez, the Family Assistance and Resource Center’s (FAC) managed outreach and community resource facility, which opened in January on a parcel of land east of Bi-Mart to serve the community’s homeless, has a waitlist.

“There are people that are still waiting to be able to stay inside of that facility,” she said. “There’s families that don’t have anywhere to go.”

Young said the city needed funding for transitional housing, family shelters, and long-term housing.

“There are multiple additional stages that I think we can look at to potentially get funding,” she said.

“It’s not uncommon for cities to decide to declare a state of emergency for an ongoing issue,” she continued, describing a similar scenario she faced in another city she worked for. “We declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness even though we were taking actions because we were stating that these actions still needed to continue and that we needed the support from a higher level.”

She said the city was stating with the proclamation that fighting homelessness was one of its priorities.

“I think Sweet Home has been leading the charge on this for the past couple of years,” she said, “and this is another way to decide that we want to continue to lead this particular charge. Declaring a state of emergency is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s something to do with caution, but it is also something to do if you’re ready to make a stand.”

According to Sweet Home Police Chief Jason Ogden, calls for services regarding the homeless had dropped since the FAC facility opened, but the department still occasionally contended with a few.

“We’re still getting some calls at different locations around town,” he said. “Public Works, when they’re out working, might notice or run into somebody who sees them and make a complaint about somebody staying over at a location. So we are still finding pockets of people here and there around town and addressing those issues as needed.”

Public Works Director Greg Springman said sanitation issues have largely decreased as well.

“For the most part I think we have our arms around this,” he said, “but we do have pockets of areas where they didn’t go to the facility, and they’re still trying to sort those out and find their peace within the community.”

He added that the city’s RV situation had also improved.

“You don’t see very many RVs around, and when you find them, they’re tucked away somewhere on somebody’s private property, which makes it easier for them to be dealt with,” he said.

Interim mayor Greg Mahler supported the proclamation.

“I believe that if there’s opportunities for funding out there, we should try to achieve that,” he said, “bsecause I don’t think we’re going to have the funding to take care of all the needs.”

The council also unanimously passed a resolution requesting Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek to consider Sweet Home for inclusion in Executive Order 23-02 regarding the state of emergency caused by the homeless epidemic. That order, signed Jan. 10, covered Eugene; Springfield/Lane County; Portland, Gresham/Multnomah County; Medford, Ashland/Jackson County; Central Oregon; Salem/Marion and Polk counties, Hillsboro; Beaverton/Washington County and Clackamas County. No Linn County cities were included in that list.

The council’s resolution argued that the data used by the governor’s office to determine counties for the executive order reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of homelessness in Sweet Home. The homeless Point in Time Count process, which is conducted every other year as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “represents a substantially undercounted number of unhoused individuals in Sweet Home.”

“The city desires a funded mandate to improve housing in Oregon with statewide requirement for shelter and housing based on population, not inaccurate and inequitable point in time counts,” the council’s letter read

“Our police department, our Public Works Department and our city staff have worked hard to care for our homeless,” Mayor Susan Coleman said. “We’ve had FAC, we’ve had volunteers, we’ve had a health committee working on all of these things for many hours. So we would like to continue to make this a priority so that we care for the health of our community and the health of our unhoused people.

“We’ve declared a state of emergency not only because of the cost that it’s had to the city of Sweet Home, but also because we know that there’ll be extended costs into the future.”