Residents crowd City Hall chambers to have their say on homeless issue

It was all hands on deck in a five-hour marathon meeting May 10 as City Council members provided nearly two hours of public hearing for residents to express their views regarding a designated sleeping area for local homeless individuals.

Prior to hearing the public’s concerns, City Manager Nancy Brewer gave background information on federal and state legal requirements the city must meet, efforts the city has made to acquire and provide resource information, safety and health issues, liability concerns, costs to the city, and discussions council has had during the past several months on the matter. (Find those stories at LebanonLocalNews.com)

Currently, based on recent court rulings, the Lebanon Police Department has little ability to prevent people from sleeping on public property, which includes sidewalks in front of homes and some businesses. If there were a shelter in town with available beds, police would be able to cite people for sleeping or (in some cases) loitering on public property. If the city offered a parcel of property to sleep on (or if a shelter was established), they could cite people for sleeping on other public property.

A public hearing notice for the meeting listed potential sites being considered, including space outside the public works compound on Oak Street, space next to City Hall on Maple Street, the old gas station (known as Holiday Station) on the corner of Oak and Park streets, property on Tennessee Road across from the wastewater treatment plant, and a parcel of land on Division Way behind Bi-Mart. Recent City Council meetings have included discussions about a site on Main and Dewey streets, but that site is no longer viable because it’s owned by Linn County and the county has indicated it will not sell the site to Lebanon.

Councilor Michelle Steinhebel expressed confusion on the “gray area” regarding a home or business owner’s responsibility to keep sidewalks in front of their home or business safe from harm, yet people are allowed to sleep there. City Attorney Tré Kennedy explained the city must allow people to sleep or seek protection from the elements at reasonable places during reasonable times.

Brewer added that nearly every city in Oregon is undergoing this same process to find ways to be compliant with the new laws.

“Some cities have robust shelter facilities. Some cities have shelter facilities but not anywhere near enough beds. Some cities, like us, have no shelter facilities and maybe no direct service providers who are trying to help people move out of homelessness. I think we have a pretty good group in Lebanon trying to help people move out of homelessness, but operating a shelter is an expensive proposition,” Brewer said.

She said the city has not been able to determine how many people would actually use the designated sleeping area.

“There’s no way to know if no one will, or if the 20 or so that we routinely see in town would all use it,” she said.

The city has determined expected costs to prepare a site for overnight sleeping, including toilets, handwashing stations, trash clean up, fencing, cameras, closure of the site every morning. The annual cost is estimated at between $78,000 and $131,400, depending on where the site would be  located. The city has $270,000 remaining from America Rescue Plan funds that could be used to cover these costs to the end of 2026.

In addition to 24 comments made via email, 27 residents and business owners spoke during the public hearing, most of whom opposed the Division Way, Tennessee Road and downtown options. Business owners and employees near Division Way, as well as many residents who live in an apartment complex abutting the site, testified to the vandalism, crime, peeping toms, aggressive behavior and aggressive dogs, debris, thefts, people staring at their kids and other behaviors they have been experiencing from an alleged homeless population currently residing in the area.

City Council listens to a Lebanon resident’s concerns regarding the designated sleeping area options.

“As a community, we want to voice our opinion because we have suffered through this for so long and we are so tired of this,” resident Mitchell Cragsett said. “Honestly, at this point, it feels like they have more rights than we do and there’s nothing we can do about that. We have been living through this for a long time and it is making life really hard. We are just asking for a little mercy on this.”

Inviting more people to the area, he said, would exacerbate the problem.

Dennis Stoneman, who spoke on behalf of staff at the River Center church, said they believed Division Way was the best option because their nearby church provides resources for the homeless. Schmizza Public House owner Jim Newman said some of the homeless in that area do cause safety and vandalism problems, but some are nice and considerate.

“Someone’s gonna have to sacrifice because we have to get a place for them,” Newman said. “I’m opposed to this location, but what does that mean? Your location? The city’s got a good decision and whatever you decide, I’ll support.”

Donna Keen, a nurse and case manager at Lebanon Community Hospital emergency department, testified that many of the homeless she sees in her line of work are those with mental health and drug addiction problems. That is the crisis the City Council should address, she said.

She opposed the Tennessee Road location because it’s a difficult place to patrol and bus routes pick up kids early in the morning out there. Plus, it extends the distance that the homeless will pass through in the city, which expands the number of businesses and residents that could be negatively affected by them, she said.

“Unfortunately this is going to have a huge impact on the community no matter where they go to,” Keen said.

Emma Stender, who lives off Tennessee Road, cited potential problems that could be created if the designated sleeping area were situated out there.

“I will not hesitate to protect myself if I feel threatened on my own property that I purchased and worked really hard for,” she said.

Cindy Pettner, who walks along the trail in that area, opposed the location for safety reasons, and also opposed the downtown areas. She asked the council what rights she has if she fears for her life, and if the city can instead create an ordinance disallowing sleeping on public sidewalks. Pettner also said the city owns 39 pieces of property, and said she thought the city was not transparent with an analysis of those locations.

Later, in response to that comment, Brewer explained that those sites include parks, water and wastewater treatment facilities, lift and pump stations, water reservoirs, creek areas, detention ponds and wet areas.

Business owners in the downtown area said they have worked for years to enhance the downtown shopping core to encourage economic uplift.

“To allow sleeping areas for the homeless in the downtown core is a turn in the wrong direction,” Kay Tanner said.

Many others expressed an understanding that homeless people need more than just a place to sleep. Rather, they need social services to get them into better situations.

“I wonder if at some point you can begin to integrate some sort of social service into your master plan for managing the homeless population,” Tom Ayala said.

Those who spoke have legitimate concerns, Kim Shull said.

“I don’t think anybody here has a lack of compassion for somebody who’s in that situation (homeless),” she said. “I don’t know what the answers are. We want to keep compassion, but we want to be able to make something happen that actually is a solution. I don’t see this as a solution; it’s barely even a Band-Aid.”

And Jonathan Hill suggested asking homeless people what their ideas for a solution might be and how the city could best serve them.

“I don’t want to enable. I want to actually help,” he said. 

Fire Chief Joseph Rodondi submitted an email expressing safety concerns related to the Division Way and Tennessee Road locations.

Mayor Kenneth Jackola said he and city staff have walked the areas where homeless are camped and talked to them, but solutions offered to the folks “fall on deaf ears.” The council, he said, understands the root causes of homelessness (lack of personal accountability, mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction) and that there’s a difference between the homeless and the criminal populations.

“We, as a city, we’re trying to figure out what that solution is,” he said. “But tonight there were some things said that I did not think of. It kind of changes my attitude on what to do tonight.”

He proposed the council table the issue to take further consideration of the thoughts and questions posed during public hearing. One example, he said, was the fact that school buses run through some of the sites.

Brewer said she would try to answer questions from the public and post them on the city website and Facebook page. She also noted the council could consider codifying ideas, such as restricting sleeping on sidewalks in front of residences.

Kennedy said he has looked at multiple city-owned properties as well as options that could be purchased by the city, which, he said, are probably the best locations. But Brewer had noted there is no money available to buy property.

Kennedy also noted that some cities are simply codifying which areas cannot be slept in, which leaves other public areas available to sleep in. That, he said, is an option Lebanon can do instead of pinpointing one location where the homeless can sleep.

Kennedy also said he believes that making the Division Way location a designated sleeping area would not necessarily encourage more problems because, once that area is provided for sleeping, police would have the power to remove people from the area during the day.

Police Chief Frank Stevenson said it’s a complex issue that requires further conversation and agreed the given locations are not great, but what is being discussed will ultimately give police the ability to move people along.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where we don’t have a location designated and we start having people moving into the parks and there is absolutely zero I can do,” he said.

Councilors KJ Ullfers, Jeremy Salvage and Carl Mann agreed they didn’t like the Tennessee Road and Division Way locations as an option. Steinhebel said all the options are “terrible,” but the “least worst” one might be Maple Street, to which Salvage agreed.

Councilor Wayne Dykstra motioned to postpone further discussion and decisions until next month, and Steinhebel asked for an amendment to hold another public hearing next month. The council unanimously agreed to postpone the decision, and all but Ullfers agreed to hold a second public hearing. Cities in Oregon must have decisions and ordinances on the matter completed by July 1.

Prior to the public hearing on the homeless sleeping area, Hannah Ahn approached the council during the public comment period to express her concerns regarding books found in the children’s section of the public library. She brought with her several books found in the children’s section that, according to her, include pictures of people having sex, nude pictures of adolescents and toddlers, nude transgender people, men pleasuring each other, how to masturbate, and how to inject yourself with hormones with information on which hormones to use and their results (excluding any negative side effects explained).

“These should not be offered to children,” Ahn said through tears.

She presented a list of books she is willing to pay for because she doesn’t want to pay for the type of books she presented.

“My request is that all pornographic, explicit, gender-confusion and transgender material be removed from the children’s section of the library,” Ahn said.

In other business, the council:

♦ Heard the report for the Economic Opportunities Analysis;

♦ Heard public comment from Kathy Ayers who requested the city look into the possibility of getting a Bottle Drop;

♦ Heard a presentation by the Scallawags 1359 Robotics team which is seeking help to locate a site for their projects;

♦ Held a public hearing for and approved a resolution authorizing a 3.19% inflationary index utility rate increase beginning July 1;

♦ Held a public hearing for and approved the annexation of 2.6 acres on the east side of Stoltz Hill Road;

♦ Appointed Ullfers to the Tourism Committee;

♦ Discussed business for Century Park regarding bathroom hours and basketball hoop and lighting maintenance;

♦ Passed a motion authorizing city staff to advertise the Cheadle Lake Waterline Extension Project for bids. The City of Lebanon received a $2.6 million grant for accessibility improvements at Cheadle Lake Park. Prior to beginning those improvements, staff would like to extend the domestic waterline from Cascade Drive to the park and the final extension of the sewer main along the park’s frontage of Weirich Drive.