Community weighs in on unhoused topic in Cottage Grove

COTTAGE GROVE – After months of discussion surrounding unhoused individuals in rural Lane County, the City of Cottage Grove took an alternative approach to finding solutions: it tasked the community, nonprofits and advocates to present their ideas to the council during a Monday night work session. Four groups gave a presentation, including Community Strong Cottage Grove, Rooting Out Hunger, Carry It Forward and St. Vincent de Paul. Community Strong Cottage Grove, small and motivated group of community organizers, pitched to create a volunteer-run organization that connects unhoused people with counseling, mentoring, vetting-processes, use of pallet shelters and no fixed location. “We envision a South Lane wide collaborative and volunteer force that is eligible and creates necessary steps and opportunities for community members to be stable and connected with their purpose in mind,” Johanna Zee said, pushing to create an “unregulated” community-oriented collaborative effort that “pushes against top-down regulation” and increases police funding and enforcement. “The important thing is that we don’t want to be part of a program that is state regulated. We have to do what’s best for the person, the individual, instead of following a certain regulation because it’s a regulation,” Zee said. Councilor Mike Fleck responded, saying, “I love a lot of your ideas. Let’s try to put some concrete to those ideas where they have a basis of what we could actually build.” Fleck said that his nonprofit pays $10,000 per year in liability insurance, and that without a clear management of liability, the city has a potential to be sued if it adopted the Community Strong Cottage Grove model. “Are you still going to move forward with this?” Mayor Jeff Gowing asked, “because other than asking the city for pallet shelters, you can still do this without council.” “We absolutely could. But we’re looking for collaboration,” Zee said. Other councilors had differing views, like City Councilor Candace Solesbee. “I appreciate (this idea) as a community member and councilor … this is the way we used to do things, “ Solesbee said. “Back when I was a kid in this community, we would all rally around each other. I feel somewhere we’ve lost that and it’s all been federalized.” Rooting Out Hunger, a grassroots organization centered on environmental sustainability, proposed to implement a city-wide community garden program that would promote job-readiness, provide a modest income for unhoused individuals and grow produce to increase food networks in rural south Lane County. “You give me some land, give me some water, and we’ll have a place for them to be a place where they can work and be treated with dignity,” said Venice Mason, Rooting Out Hunger organizer. “Let’s grow a perennial solution, something that’s gonna get bigger and thrive and have deep roots in this deeply rooted community.” Kris McAlister and Arwen Maas-Despain from Carry it Forward, a Lane County non-profit that addresses housing inequality and homelessness problems, said that their nonprofit would work alongside the city and community to implement the unhoused shelter program put forth by City Manager Richard Meyers months ago. “We are very community-based. We listen to the needs of the community that we’re in,” McAlister said. “We have supports that are internal and external to our organization that we make available. Internally we have case management, advocates and experts in housing navigation and getting access to resources in the community. And externally, we work with a volunteer support network to address needs.” Carry it Forward reports that 85% of individuals that enter its programs are now settled in permanent housing. Terry McDonald, executive director at St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, was scheduled to speak but left the council chambers prior to giving his presentation. The Chronicle reached out to St. Vincent de Paul for comment but did not hear back by press time. Next week, the Cottage Grove City Council meets at 7 p.m. on Monday, July 25 for a second vote on the overnight camping program put forth by Meyers and to identify five city priorities to send to the 2023 League of Oregon Cities.