SWEET HOME — A “warming center” at the Sweet Home Church of the Nazarene has grown into a temporary homeless shelter, raising concerns among some community residents and members of the City Council.
A roundtable workshop addressed the issue Tuesday evening.
A few months ago there were two or three homeless persons using the site, which is near the intersection of Highway 228 and Highway 20. Now there are up to 15 or 16, and not just during extremely cold nights.
The site has brought complaints from both business owners and the general public.
Pastor Bethany Young said the church originally assisted people during extremely cold winter nights, but as the year has progressed, it has brought new challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and thick smoke from the wildfires in September.
Recently, Rotary Club volunteers built wooden platforms that tents could be placed on.
Young said the goal was to get people up off the cold, wet ground and to put tarps over the tents to help keep the rain out and heat in on nights when the temperature drops into the 20s.
Young said the encampment is not something anyone envisioned — it has just evolved.
She, too, would like to see a better site elsewhere in town, not right at the entrance of the community.
“It’s not going to be here forever, but we do need to get them off the street,” Young said. “It’s a slow, long-term process.”
City Attorney Robert Snyder told council members, who were meeting by videoconference, that recent court findings make it difficult to simply shut down places where homeless people are gathering.
He said that if people don’t have a place to go, the courts say they have a right to sit or sleep in a public place.
Police Chief Jeff Lynn said the issue of homelessness is “such a broad topic. It’s difficult to wrap our heads around it at times. Court rulings have changed the way we interact with the homeless and the influence we can have on them when it comes to sleeping or lying in public places.”
Lynn said the rulings also impact how city ordinances can be enforced.
Community Development Director Blair Larsen said having a common area for the homeless to congregate does relieve the downtown business district and city parks of people sleeping in those places overnight.
“What is a detriment to one business may be a boon to others,” Larsen said. “It has changed the movement of several people.”
Larsen said if a number of homeless people congregate in one area, it can make code enforcement easier.
“But the big problem is where?” Larsen said. “The long-term solution is to find a location where they can access services and find shelter. We don’t know what that looks like.”
Larsen said he is concerned about splitting up locations — say, among several churches volunteering to help one or two homeless persons each — because that would create a difficult communications issue.
It’s also important to have a common site so outreach services can help several people at the same location, not scattered about the community, Larsen said.
City Manager Ray Towry said Sean Morgan, the community outreach officer with the Sweet Home Police Department, has done an excellent job working with the community’s homeless population.
Morgan has focused on connecting the homeless with social services including mental health, alcohol and drug counseling and housing.
“We have 10 people engaged in some regular way with services with varying degrees of dedication,” Morgan said. “They are working with our new Community Court. A Linn County health worker recently filled out eight applications for housing.”
Morgan said he is working with one man who had 13 outstanding police warrants on two charges.
“He’s been able to go to court and has gotten connected with some services,” Morgan said. “It’s a mindset he didn’t have before. We have a veteran we hope will be in a house soon. They are trying, and we are seeing some success. It’s cool to watch.”
Business owner Beth Lambert’s insurance office is next to the church property. She said the encampment causes problems for her and her hair salon tenant.
“I sit and watch it every day as they do not follow rules,” Lambert said. “They look into my windows and disrupt my renter’s business. Sean and Bethany are doing amazing things with people who are not rule-followers.”
Lambert said she didn’t want to be a “naysayer,” but the homeless are devaluing her property and affecting her business.
Lambert said the people sometimes yell at each other right outside her building.
“This is on private property, not city property,” Lambert said.
She added later that the situation is violating all kinds of city codes that would not be tolerated from other property owners.
Mayor Greg Mahler said he fields calls from business owners like Lambert on a regular basis.
“We have never wanted to establish homeless shelters, just warming centers,” Mahler said. “We appear to have added an eyesore to our community.”
Mahler said perhaps the community could look at the Eugene Missions for men and women.
He said they appear to be clean and well-organized.
“They have a church, cafeteria, housing and a social gathering area,” he said. “Perhaps we could look at what they are doing and do something similar. We’ve created a two-headed monster. I’m all for helping people during the winter months with warming shelters.”
Councilor James Goble said the council has always supported warming centers, but opposes encampments.
He said the warming center has “migrated into a homeless camp right in front of us. That bothers me. It’s happening, and we’re not doing anything about it.”
Goble said the camp is on private property, which has different rules than public property.
But Goble agreed that the council must help all people, whether they have a home or not.
Councilor Susan Coleman agreed with Goble that it’s the council’s responsibility to help all of the community’s residents.
“It’s challenging and it is an eyesore, but it would also be really bad if somebody died sleeping outside within our city limits,” Coleman said. “We need to work on a long-term solution, because this is a temporary solution. Cold weather is approaching. This has happened everywhere. It’s a problem for both the homeless and local businesses that are struggling.”
Council members agreed the issue needs to be discussed more fully by the One Sweet Home group, which is composed of members from various churches, and the city’s ad hoc committee on homeless issues.
Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.