Former Sweet Home City Hall annex moved to FAC homeless site

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Sweet Home’s old City Hall annex made a trip across town Tuesday morning, Nov. 29, to the site of the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center’s Managed Outreach and Community Resource Facility, which is slated to open Thursday, Dec. 15.

The building will serve as a resource and community center on the property, which is now being prepped on an FAC-owned parcel of land east of Bi-Mart.

“It’s not just for the unhoused,” FAC Program Manager Brock Byers said. “It’s going to be a community center.”

Nate Hoffard, right, and Cody Humphrey, of Bent Level Construction, use special equipment to move one half of the former City Hall Annex into place.

Molalla firm Bent Level Construction moved the annex to FAC’s site in a process that took three to four hours. According to Byers, the initial relocation bid was about $9,000, but the effort cost the organization roughly $31,000.

“It’s killing us budget-wise, but in the end, we’ve got to get to the solution,” he said. “We can’t let that stop us. We just said, ‘It’s getting cold, and it’s getting to winter, and we’ve just got to do something.'”

He described the various providers earmarked for the facility.

“We have nurses, community health workers, mental health and substance-use specialists that will be coming in,” he said. “We’re providing wraparound services, because our intent is to get people permanent housing and services to make them successful. We don’t want to diminish the community center Sweet Home already has, because [it does] an amazing job. We just want to enhance the services. It’s getting them all consolidated and working as a unit and making the community a better community.”

In preparation for the Dec. 15 opening date, fencing has been installed, as well as water, electricity and sewer lines. About 20 Quonset-style sleeping huts are at the site, as are two large gathering tents. Roughly 2.6 acres of land have been leveled and either paved or graveled.

But FAC board member and local resident Larry Horton said the facility isn’t quite ready to open, citing remaining work required on the office building and connection of plumbing and electrical services. Plus, the FAC still seeks help from anyone who can use hammers, saws, tape measures and drill guns.

“We need to construct 10 more huts ASAP, as well as complete other miscellaneous items,” he said. “A paid crew is working on these items, but to expedite the process, we need help.”

Locals have already stepped up in various ways, such as when 100 people gathered Nov. 5 at Sweet Home High School to help build huts.

FAC founder Shirley Byrd speaks during a recent committee meeting.

“The community’s really coming together to make this come true,” Byers said. “They are doing amazing things. We have lots of volunteers and people with money, means, equipment or whatever always offering help. It’s a very caring and helpful community.”

No matter how much assistance the FAC receives, however, the group still faces several trials.

“It’s going to be a challenge because we’ve never run a shelter,” he said. “We definitely have some people at other shelters in Corvallis and Albany that are stepping up and offering help and will coach us, but I assume there will be hiccups along the way.”

The new arrangement will also be an adjustment for the homeless themselves.

“I think there’s going to be a decompression for a lot of people, because it’s a different environment and we’re all kind of learning about it,” he said. “It will be a little bit of learning for the first couple of weeks, and then people will settle in. And then, I think the real healing and services and other things can really begin.

“We’ve got to condition people that they cannot have all the stuff that they have now, and condition them to what the rules are, because there’s a lot of misnomers,” he added. “We’re trying to dispel any false rumors.”

So far, 30 individuals are on a waitlist to move into the facility when it’s ready for intake. Huts will be assigned on a first come, first served basis.

Brock Byers, right, points out elements of the new homeless facility’s layout to City Manager Kelsey Young.

“We are working with the city to possibly increase capacity, but right now we want to do an excellent job of running the facility before we start increasing and going that route,” Byers said.

He added that the FAC has explored housing some tents on site for potential situations where its population outnumbered available huts. However, there were possible downsides to that.

“Once you get into other living arrangements, there’s too much possibility for boundaries to change, and we’re a little reluctant to do that, at least at the start,” he said. “What we’re trying to establish initially when we open is clear rules and boundaries.”

Those rules include no alcohol or drug consumption, and a 10 p.m. cutoff after which no one can enter or leave if they expect re-entry that evening.

Paid FAC staff will man the facility during the day, with a security guard on the grounds at night.

Sweet Home City Manager Kelcey Young stressed the city’s emphasis on its homeless issue.

“This is something that is very, very important to us,” she said. “I talk about this probably every day. The city’s goal is very much to clean up the downtown area.”

She outlined a desire for parameters.

“My understanding of the way the law works is that we need to allow places to rest, because they have the right to rest and so forth,” she said. “But it also can be within the parameters that we put in place. And those parameters are ones that we consider to be in the best interest of the city and community. We’re very grateful that FAC is moving forward with this, because this also gives us the opportunity to start making those policies, and to start consolidating the way that we’re going to be handling this as we’re moving forward.

“Once we have the FAC facility in place, we could have a much harder line and state that this is the opportunity that’s available here in Sweet Home, and that’s it,” she continued.

“Or we could have an additional spot that’s like the parking lot at old City Hall, but not as close to in-town. It would maybe be another spot that would have parameters such as only being available between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and that all items have to be kept this way.”

In terms of making policy, she said, “I think trying to figure out how we’re going to do that while still being compassionate is definitely something we’re going to have to discuss a bit more, because there’s a couple different ways that we can go.”

Byers noted that homelessness is common in many areas, amidst what some are calling a “housing crisis” throughout Oregon and the country.

“Affordable housing is a major problem for all communities, whether they’re young people trying to have a $15 an hour job and still afford housing, or families,” he said. “There’s still many families that are sleeping with family members and other groups to stay safe and such.”

He said that well over 80% of the people FAC works with suffer from traumatic brain injury, mental illness or substance use.

“These are real residents and community members,” he said. “Even though we consider them unhoused or homeless, they truly are your community members. They just happen to be under adverse circumstances.”