Group addresses homeless crisis

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

An ad-hoc advisory committee for illegal camping agreed on new and revised code language at its Nov. 14 meeting to be recommended to the Lebanon City Council, and listened to public comment regarding the local homeless community.
Present were Nancy Brewer, Denise Downer, Wayne Dykstra, Kelly Hart, Kim Hyde, Tré Kennedy, Frank Stevenson and Jason Williams. Melissa Egan and Paul Aziz attended via Zoom.
The committee’s purpose is to provide recommendations regarding illegal camping that meet state law and are within court-decision guidelines. The committee did not specifically address camping in cars or RVs but noted that anyone sleeping in vehicles might be able to park in a designated sleeping area if they move during the day.
According to part of the proposed code language, a “designated sleeping area” refers to “any public place that has been expressly authorized by the Lebanon City Council via adoption of a Resolution for persons seeking to rest or sleep with protection from the elements.”
Those areas are yet to be determined.
City Manager Nancy Brewer said that the lack of an established shelter in Lebanon presented some challenges. To comply with laws and provide reasonable options, the committee looked for city-owned property where “designated sleeping areas” could be placed.
“It is the best that we’ve got without a service provider operating a shelter at this point,” she said. “It’s not providing a camp, it’s not providing a home, but it is providing a place where people can find shelter and protection from the elements. Without a service provider, that’s a battle we can do.”
The ad-hoc committee created proposed changes to municipal codes 12.12 and 12.14 defining city park boundaries, recreation areas and public spaces, and providing limits on where people could sleep and protect themselves against the elements.
“12.14 is the meat of what is being considered for meeting compliance with state law and the case law that’s come down,” Community Development Director Kelly Hart said, referring to the landmark 2018 Martin v. Boise case, which determined that people could not be criminally punished for sleeping on public property if no alternative shelter beds are available, and HB3115, which stipulates that local restrictions on the matter must be reasonable as to time, place and manner.

Concerned citizens sit-in during the ad hoc committee. Photo by Sarah Brown

In Martin v. Boise, homeless individuals claimed cruel and unusual punishment (the Eighth Amendment) for being cited and banned by that Idaho city for sleeping in public places when they had no access to shelter beds. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2018 determined that “an ordinance violates the Eighth Amendment insofar as it imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors on public property, when no alternative shelter is available to them.”
HB3115, introduced in 2021 by House Speaker Tina Kotek, guides cities to provide “objectively reasonable” ordinances pertaining to time, place and manner for the homeless to sit, lie, sleep, and keep warm and dry on public property.
In short, the proposed changes to Lebanon’s code state that a person may rest with temporary structures (tent, bedding) in certain parts of public parks (e.g., grassy areas that are not used for recreation) during park hours from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and in designated sleeping areas from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. These structures may not be secured to any permanent structures or ground and must be removed when the designated hours are not in effect. Fires may not be lit, and rules of public decency, safety standards and hazards are defined.
“What is changed (with the proposed codes) is it’s providing a clearly identifiable place for people to sit, lie and sleep at all times within the city of Lebanon, giving us the opportunity to limit in a time, place and manner of respect where they can’t,” City Attorney Tré Kennedy said. “In other words, we have to have somewhere where they can before we can provide somewhere where we can tell them they can’t.”

City Hall has a potential space for a designated sleeping area.

Committee member Denise Downer wanted to make sure that the homeless population clearly understood Lebanon’s new camping regulations before receiving citations. Violators of these city codes risk a fine of no more than $500 per offense and a misdemeanor charge of no more than $1,000 after multiple offenses.
Police Chief Frank Stevenson said his officers often attempt to direct people to available resources before issuing fines.
“Citations are a last resort,” he said. “That’s what the ordinance is building around, trying to safely get individuals to a location that they can sleep rather than us having to deal with it on the law side of things.”
The committee examined four city-owned locations that could serve as a “designated sleeping area:” vacant space in front of the Public Works building on Oak Street, space next to City Hall on Maple Street, the old gas-station parking lot (a.k.a. “Holiday Station”) at Ralston Park, and a portion of the parking lot on Park Street directly across from the station.
Several other city-owned locations were ruled out due to factors such as being a wetland, drainage way or environmentally hazardous (wastewater treatment plant) area, or near dangerous roadways, Brewer said. After some discussion, the committee chose to recommend to the council all but the Park Street parking lot.
Shirley Byrd, founder of homeless-outreach provider Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC), said that finding a place for people to explore nonprofit service partners was a good start. However, she added, “I think the places that they picked out will in no way house the amount of people that will be needing the spot. I think they underestimate the need, and I think that’s going to hurt the execution of this plan. They have a responsibility as a city to make sure that people are safe and taken care of.”
Police Captain Kimberly Hyde said that a porta-potty, wash station and trash receptacle would be placed at the sleeping area once its location is defined.
“The city will incur some costs,” Brewer said. “Those are going to be relatively minor for those services, probably around $10,000 a year.”

The ad hoc committee decided to remove this parking lot as a potential sleeping area.

Downer asked if more than one location could serve as such an area. Brewer said that it was possible but created more daily clean-up challenges.
“The more sites you have, the more cost you have to maintain them,” Brewer said.
Ideally, a service provider (e.g., nonprofit organization) would partner with the city to manage a homeless camp, providing services and security, she said. Meanwhile, Mayor Paul Aziz signed a letter with the Oregon Mayors Association requesting state funding for homeless services.
“If the Legislature would provide that funding, it would go a long way toward improving the services we could provide,” Brewer said. “In addition, the League of Oregon Cities is trying to put together a list of capital equipment that would be needed. We’re putting in for a sleeping trailer and a portable bathroom/shower and laundry facility (trailer).”
If the city could secure more and ongoing resources, it could work toward a shelter or land for the homeless, she said.
City councilor and committee member Wayne Dykstra asked if a line item could be incorporated into the city budget or if an opportunity existed for the community to vote on a way to help fund a place of safety. Brewer suggested that he ask the council to consider a voter-approved general obligation bond to build a structure but added that operation costs needed to be considered. If a service provider were to partner with the city to operate and maintain a shelter, she said, the community might be more willing to fund such a bond.
Prior to the meeting, several interested parties approached the committee to express experiences and ideas.
Nora Stengrim shared a story about a homeless client through FAC in Sweet Home, where a homeless camp with huts is currently underway. The client, she said, upon realizing she may soon have a place to call “home,” began filling out job applications because she believed she could turn her life around.
Carol Davies, director of Albany’s Community Outreach Assistance Team (COAT), encouraged the committee to look at and create a program for the city’s houseless population.
Carol Hollingsworth, who works with the Lebanon Salvation Army, worried about the increase in homelessness.

Holiday Station is considered for a sleeping area.

“It’s getting to the point where we’ve got seniors living in their cars, and it’s breaking my heart to think that we’re not doing something about it,” she said, choking up. “Something needs to change. I’m sorry to cry, but it’s heartbreaking to me.”
As part of its provided services, the Lebanon Salvation Army gives gas money to people living in their cars so they can relocate every few days, she said, but the organization’s funds are too low to help much with this cost.
“We need someone who is willing to come alongside (them), because some of these people just need a hand up, not just a handout,” she said.
Sara Jameson, a member of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, shared her experience with helping the homeless.
“Jesus told us to feed the poor, and take care of the sick and the hungry, so this is what we do,” she said. “But, on the other hand, we want to be a good neighbor in our neighborhood. It’s a fine line. We want to embrace everybody, but we can’t be overrun at the same time.”
The church serves these clients throughout the week and has faced its share of obstacles.
“It would be ideal if we could have a designated parking area where cars could park that had a porta-potty, running water, electricity for people to plug in their phones so they can stay connected to their doctor appointments and so on, dumpsters, and that had rules about who could be there, no fires, etc.,” Jameson said.
The plan would benefit the homeless, preventing them from having to move their vehicles, she said. However, she continued, it would also benefit the police, businesses and residential neighborhoods, and would also have to be a safe space with security.
What Jameson described was different in some respects to a facility currently being built in Sweet Home through the FAC. Since early 2021, the Lebanon-based group has worked with that city’s Community Health Committee to create a safe homeless camp and, ultimately, acquire 2.6 acres of the former Willamette Industries mill site located behind Bi-Mart for a sleep center and outreach site. As many as 30 Conestoga hut “micro-shelters” have been built and placed on the property, and the vacant former City Hall Annex has been moved there to serve as a resource center.
Plans for the fenced-in facility include a mobile toilet and shower unit, RV dump station, on-site service providers, enforced rules and 24-hour on-site management. However, inhabitants will not be allowed to sleep in RVs or cars on the site. Its design is largely based on the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless shelter community in Washington, and will be funded largely through grants and donations to FAC.
Adam Reel, a formerly homeless man who now serves on the FAC board, said that he once didn’t believe he could ever be a “proper member of society.” However, thanks to a handful of support agencies, he was able to change.
“People need to know that they are worth something and that their life is valuable,” he said. “I can’t tell you in the city of Lebanon alone how much I have seen people put the homeless down, degrade the homeless. Yes, a lot of them don’t know how to take care of their stuff or pick up after themselves. It’s a process to learn how to do things like that because a lot of them feel that they’re trash and so why not live in trash?”
Reel was there himself, but now had a job and 20 months of recovery.
“I had nothing,” he said, “and now I have the whole world ahead of me.”