Despite a proposal seeking to resolve issues surrounding the men’s homeless shelter downtown, a Corvallis business owner is moving forward with a lawsuit against the organization running the shelter.
Charlie Ringo, through his company CJ Holdings Inc. — which operates an office building complex across the street from the men’s cold weather shelter — has filed a lawsuit seeking $500,000 in damages and an injunction against the nonprofit Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition. The coalition is part of Corvallis Housing First, the group that runs the men’s shelter at 540 S.W. Fourth St.
According to the suit, Ringo alleges that the shelter presents a chronic nuisance, allows its invitees to trespass at Ringo’s businesses, and has substantially interfered with the complex’s business owners, employees and customers.
“My hope is that they permanently shut down the operation on Fourth Street,” Ringo said. “They can do it voluntarily. They can do it under court order. Obviously the easiest thing is that they do it voluntarily. I’m confident in the long run this will be declared a private nuisance and there is a strong likelihood a court will say they need to shut down.”
Officials with Corvallis Housing First have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and say they are confident they will prevail against the suit.
The lawsuit was filed in January, roughly three weeks after Citizens for Protecting Corvallis, the group opposing construction of a proposed 15,000-square-foot permanent shelter at the downtown location, sent a letter to Corvallis Housing First announcing an end to mediation talks between the two groups. Ringo was the co-author of that letter.
“There had been various discussions that they would change their operations or change locations, but none of those seemed reliable. So I thought it was time to move forward,” Ringo said. “I filed the lawsuit because of the ongoing harassment to the neighborhood, and particularly to my property, from the homeless shelter.”
The suit alleges that the shelter’s “invitees regularly eat, drink, smoke, sleep, spit, urinate, defecate, litter, aggressively panhandle, beg, use drugs, are publicly intoxicated, and cause other inconvenience to and on” Ringo’s property. The combined actions, the suit alleges, create a chronic nuisance and the business complex has sustained $500,000.
“It’s hard to put a specific number on it, but it is substantial,” Ringo said.
In late February, Ringo amended the suit, seeking an injunction preventing Corvallis Housing First from operating the shelter.
“I have a right to operate my property in a way where I should be free of harassment from a neighboring property,” he said. “And (the injunction) frankly is the best remedy to that harassment.”
Ringo would not say whether he would drop the suit if Corvallis Housing First announced it would cease operations.
“I’m not going to answer that,” but he added: “They do owe money damages.”
Earlier this month, Corvallis Housing First’s legal representatives filed motions to dismiss. A hearing on those motions has been scheduled for May 6. Gregg Olson, executive director of Corvallis Housing First, said the group has liability insurance that is expected to cover the monetary costs associated with the suit.
“This could take a while, but there’s no way we’re going to lose,” Olson said. “The litigation is ongoing and there are no current signs of a resolution.”
In February, Catherine Mater, co-sponsor of the Petition to Restrict Location of Homeless Shelters, made a proposal that promised that the group would suspend the petition for six months and raise funding for a third of the shelters’ operating budgets for the year. But it came with the condition that Corvallis Housing First no longer operate the men’s shelter.
The petition would seek to amend the city of Corvallis charter to limit the areas in which a homeless shelter could operate.
Olson believes the proposal and lawsuit could be linked.
“We were threatened with this lawsuit for some time before (it was filed). And there are new threats to us all the time,” he said. “Property owners nearby may have an interest in developing on our property, for profit. I think all of these things are really meant to try to scare us to move.”
Ringo said he hopes Corvallis Housing First does consider moving its operations outside of the downtown area.
“If they want to operate a high-risk shelter, it should be done away from businesses and away from neighborhoods,” he said. “I think that if you did not have the shelter, the population would be dispersed throughout the community. I don’t think any one neighborhood should be burdened by this population.”
However, Olson said, he’s convinced that the threats would not cease even if the group decided to move to another location.
“We have no guarantee that it’s going to be easier, so we’re going to stay and duke it out where we’re at,” he said.
Aleita Hass-Holcombe, who helps run the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center and helped found the Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition, said the group is unfairly being held responsible for things out of the group’s control.
“We started out with three people concerned people were going to freeze to death in cold weather,” she said. “We expanded out to more social services. … Does that make us responsible for things we haven’t quite expanded to yet?”
Ringo, however, thinks moving the facility would ease the strain on surrounding businesses.
“They want to make it as convenient as possible for the homeless regardless of the impacts to their neighbors,” Ringo said. “If the goal is to prevent someone from freezing in the middle of the night, I think people can find their way to a shelter if it’s not in a convenient place.”
Meanwhile, both the petition and lawsuit are gaining attention around the state. Kimberly McCullough, legislative director and counsel for the ACLU of Oregon, said she is following both closely.
“(The lawsuit) is one of those things that we do have deep concerns with and we’ve been aware of it since it was filed,” McCullough said.
She added that she is not aware of any state or national precedent involving a business filing a lawsuit alleging damages against a homeless shelter due to the behavior of the shelter’s invitees.
“It’s on my list to try to figure out,” she said. “I haven’t personally heard of something like this before. But it’s certainly something we’re taking a look at. We are concerned about folks getting the help they need.”