Sweet Home committee meets to talk about homeless shelter

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Despite delays, the Sweet Home Sleep Center is still on track to open – as soon as an office facility can be installed, Brock Byers, project manager for the Family Assistance and Resource Group told the homeless shelter’s newly established oversight committee Wednesday, Nov. 16.

That was one of many topics discussed in the committee’s inaugural meeting, held at the police station.

Committee members are Vince Adams, Ken Bronson, Rob Keene, Scott McKee, Dr. Sam Milstein, Police Chief Jason Ogden, Addam Z. Reel, and City Council member Angelita Sanchez. Also present was Dr. Larry Horton, who is a FAC board member.

Responding to a question from Sanchez regarding the progress, Byers said the big challenge has been finding a company to move the former City Hall Annex building, a infrastructure modular building, from its location off 12th Avenue to the new homeless facility site at the north end of 24th Avenue.

“We thought it was a mobile home,” Byers said. “It’s actually a modular, and to move a modular is way trickier.”

He said FAC was, as of Nov. 16, in the process of receiving a third bid for the move, one for $38,000, one for $9,000 and the third he expected to be about $23,000, he said, adding that timing and the amount of service included were big factors in the wide range between the three. He said he was hoping to get the third quote that night.

He said he’s talked to movers who said they wouldn’t be able to do it till 2023.

The building is necessary to complete the parameter fence around the homeless facility, Byers said. Once it is in place, the entire area will be fenced in.

If the annex cannot be moved in the near future, he said FAC is considering using tents and heaters to provide warmth for local homeless who have been spending nights in the cold. He said he’s also been in touch with Palm Harbor Homes, looking for other options if the modular, donated by the city, doesn’t work out.

Horton described how the idea for the homeless shelter came about, relating how, three years ago, the Sweet Home Nazarene Church decided to allow the homeless to camp in their parking lot and how the Rotary Club coordinated an effort to build 40 platforms to keep tents and sleeping bags off the ground.

Reel was homeless at the time, he said, and was a resident of that camp. He has since been able to procure transitional housing.

Horton also told how city officials and others concerned about finding a way to respond, legally, to the local homeless situation, took a trip to Walla Walla, Wash., where a shelter similar to the one in process in Sweet Home has been very successful.

“I think everyone that visited was very, very impressed with what we saw,” Horton said, describing the Walla Walla facility as “a very, very well-run place that was meeting the needs of the community and serving the needs of the clients themselves.”

After a year and a half of trying to find a site, the county agreed to give FAC nearly three acres of land on the north end of 24th Avenue, behind the city Maintenance Department yard, to establish the homeless facility.

Byers makes a point as Byrd listens.

Byers introduced himself, noting that he comes from a corporate background including 25-plus years at Hewlett Packard, and more recently has worked for a number of high-tech start-ups, a nonprofit providing therapy for children, and has also owned a coffee shop in Lebanon – where he got interested in the homeless problem, he said.

“I saw a lot of the issues and problems on the screen in front of my doorways, so I just got interested in helping to solve them.”

Along with Horton, Byers listed the other FAC trustees: pharmacist and retired Navy Capt. Steve Middendorff of West Linn; Cindy Hansen, registered nurse, who has a master’s degree in the field; Dennis Stoneman, pastor at the River Center in Lebanon, who has master’s degrees in psychology and theology, and Shirley Byrd, who is also FAC’s executive director.

Byrd, introduced herself as a former registered nurse in the Lebanon and Albany area, who through a variety of circumstances found herself living homeless in the Medford area for about five years.

“I lost my job, my career, my house and everything I owned.”

When she was able to get her feet back on the ground, she lived in Sweet Home, where she got interested in helping the homeless after realizing there were no shelters available for people in that plight. She founded FAC four years ago.

Byrd also serves with a variety of other boards and organizations, including the county Mental Health Advisory Board, the local Alcohol and Drug Planning Committee, the Childhood Community Harm Reduction Program for the Tri-County Area, the county Adult Services Team, and is a state-certified community health worker.

Byers passed out a handbook outlining FAC’s areas of focus:

♦ Outreach, which includes street outreach, such as provision of supplies such as emergency food, fuel, transportation, tents, sleeping bags, first aid and dog food; harm reduction (such as providing whistles for females) and resource navigation, which includes efforts to reduce the harmful consequences associated with high-risk activities such as education, testing, safe use instruction, safety kits, overdose reversal and navigation;

♦ Housing, which can include assistance in finding emergency shelter, transitional and permanent housing; and

♦ Services, which include advocacy, emergency food, fuel and transportation, food delivery, medical and dental care, reproductive healthcare, crisis mental healthcare, child care, legal aid and utility assistance.

McKee, Reel and Byrd frequently reminded those at the table that a big problem for homeless people is trauma, and emphasized the importance of taking those needs into consideration in setting policies and creating an environment in which occupants of the facility will feel safe.

Another is self-image, said Reel, who struggled with addiction and other issues while he was homeless.

“Being homeless for so long, I thought my life was worthless,” he said. “People who feel like trash will live in trash. Because they don’t know better. It’s a process. It took me almost 20 months in recovery. I didn’t think I could be a productive member of society.”

He added: “It’s making them feel like their life is worth something, instead of being degraded. Because I can’t tell you how many times in Sweet Home I’ve seen the homeless get trashed on and disrespected.”

Byrd emphasized the importance of simply providing an ID card for homeless people, who often have nothing, noting that that process has gotten more complicated with the closure of the DMV office in Lebanon.

Byers described the planned facility as a “behavior-based, lowbarrier shelter,” one that homeless people won’t have a lot of criteria to meet to get in, but will need to adhere to good-conduct standards to stay.

He added that although a policy manual has been roughed out for the facility, “what we’ll do is start modifying it to the desires and aspects of this community.”

Byers said organizers expect to fine-tune policies as they get the homeless shelter up and running. He said that was the case in Walla Walla.

“For instance, we have a pet policy and we are Linn County’s only low-barrier shelter now that provides a means for pets.”

Managers will need to have “options” when demand exceeds the limit the shelter has imposed – “an arbitrary number” of 10 animals, he said, adding that those are the kinds of issues that need to be worked out.

McKee, a community member who has worked extensively with the homeless, cautioned that the shelter won’t be able to include “actual service dogs and dependent pets and things like that” in its limit, and it will need to “be prepared for additional rabbits and birds and cats.”

He suggested that the pet policy “be pretty broad.”

Discussion of how to handle troublemakers, those who don’t abide by the rules, prompted concerns from Sanchez about what will happen when someone is “trespassed” from the facility.

“Where are they going to go when they’re being violent or belligerent?” she asked. “Are they just going to be on the outsides of the fence? Are they going to jail? Are they going to go to a different town?”

That prompted an extended discussion of the legalities posed by the facility rules and the fact that, as Byers noted, a lot of legal questions haven’t really been clearly worked out by the courts.

McKee said that the issue will be whether the culprit is actually a threat to public safety.

“Because if they’re breaking a law and they’re a threat to the community, then they should be reported to the police departments. But if they’re not a threat, they’re not breaking any laws, then there’s no difference than them being on a public street.”

Sanchez responded that the homeless facility was “marketed to us that we were going to be able to do something with these people when they are not acting appropriately.”

Byers said the group would need to consult legal counsel for answers on such questions, although, he added, “I have opinions.”

Adams suggested that the community has “provided them a place with guidelines to follow, very simple guidelines, very easy guidelines to follow.”

“If they can’t follow those guidelines and they get back out on the street, they can’t stay anywhere in town,” he said.

McKee said it wasn’t that simple, “because you have to have different forms of space and this is one option.”

He said the city and FAC need to work with other agencies to find solutions for those who can’t be in the shelter.

“Shirley and I are both on the (Linn County) Mental Health Advisory Board,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re working on. They just got money from the state and federal government to do that exact thing. We’re working on getting those beds available.”

He said the homeless facility is “a solution to part of your problem, right? But they’re not fixing all of your community’s problems.”

Sanchez also expressed concerns about the use of drugs in the facility, since “hard drugs are legal now,” and noting that the draft policy manual for the facility forbids users to store illegal drugs or marijuana.

Byers said that the intent is to forbid drug use on site and that occupants will have cabinets in which to store items that are forbidden inside the facility, such as knives.

Reel repeatedly advocated that cameras be installed, noting that cameras installed at the Nazarene Church camp site helped identify perpetrators who, he said, helped themselves to his belongings while he was in jail on a warrant.

Sanchez asked about how the shelter would deal with “criminal, violent people and the sex offenders,” adding that she was “really concerned” that the low barrier would allow clients “with those type of mental health issues and backgrounds.”

Byers and others noted that sex offenders already live in the community and anyone in the homeless facility would need to register that address.

“Walla Walla has never had a problem with that,” he said. “They do mix, they are low-barrier. We have cameras and we will have cameras. We can only respond to it. Our insurance company knows about this.”

He added that “co-mingling” will not be allowed.

The meeting wound down with discussion of the annex issue and how that impacts the completion of the facility. Byers said he believed 11 of the huts being constructed by Sweet Home High School students would be on the site by Thursday.

More huts are in the process of being completed, he said.

Conversation then veered into the issue of motorhomes, which, participants noted, is a problem many communities are dealing with and costs for removing them are astronomical.

Byers said no motorhomes will be allowed on the site, though cars can be parked there, though clients “cannot sleep in the car.”

“We counsel people, ‘Do not get a recreational vehicle because it’s treated entirely different than a car or a van.”

He added that “the eviction rate is going crazy right now, so we are getting a lot of calls from a lot of people going, ‘I have nowhere to go.'”

McKee noted that housing for low-income housing is a big need.

“How do we entice developers to return?” he asked, noting that such complexes are being built in Lebanon and Albany. “Why not here?”