I am worried for Cottage Grove and our country. Political divisiveness is running rampant and it seems to be escalating out of control. Rather than work together to find solutions, we are at war with each other.
Me and two other Cottage Grove city councilors are facing a recall effort. The recall process is supposed to be used to remove an elected official who has done something wrong. To my knowledge, we have all served our community with honor and integrity.
This recall effort is about our city’s efforts to address homelessness and the court cases and laws that have recently gone into effect. The sad reality is that most of those decisions happened before the last election, so the voters have already had an opportunity to weigh in on whether we made good decisions or not.
After the court cases and HB 3115, the Cottage Grove City Council was faced with changing our ordinances or facing potential lawsuits.
The council received community feedback while the city staff, including our attorneys, provided a path forward that not all ultimately supported. The final council vote was 5-2 to open a low-barrier shelter and to create “overflow” sites if the shelter filled to capacity. This vote also banned camping in our parks, in the street, and sidewalk right-of-ways (there actually is much more to this, call me if you want more information – 541-942-7302).
The two councilors who voted against this proposal wanted a Dusk to Dawn ordinance where the homeless would have to leave the overflow sites in the morning and return in the evening.
While I respect the intent of these two individuals’ positions, this plan makes no sense. I supervised the warming shelters during Covid and always had a hard time getting folks up in the morning. Some don’t sleep well or just have a hard time getting up.
Under a Dusk to Dawn program, our police will have to clear out the overflow sites each morning. Our police force is small and this will create a significant additional burden.
The next problem is that each individual leaving the overflow site will have to carry all of their belongings with them. What they can’t carry will be left in the overflow site. This will mean that our public works employees will have to pick up these items each morning, creating additional work for their already overloaded work schedule.
The last problem with a Dusk to Dawn program is – where do our homeless folks go during the day? They will likely end up in our parks, library, and other public places, potentially creating challenges for those locations and services.
The other considerations are the impacts on the unhoused individuals. Some have jobs and are trying to pull themselves out of homelessness, some have children and are trying to keep them in school. Granted, these folks aren’t the majority of the people in these sites, but service providers also have an easier time working with the unhoused community if they can consistently find those individuals.
While the plan isn’t perfect, it has kept our parks and our sidewalks free from camping (which was happening in Eugene until they changed their ordinance). I share concerns about the overflow site’s current condition. I also understand the frustrations with some of the behaviors of our homeless neighbors.
I welcome all suggestions to improve our unhoused situation that will meet current law and won’t overload our city staff.
In my position at Community Sharing, I have learned a lot about homelessness. Many in our community believe that drugs are the reason people become homeless. I have had many conversations with unhoused folks in our town and I have found that there are many reasons individuals become homeless.
Drugs seem to be a symptom of homelessness, not a cause, most of the time. Mental health challenges also seem to be a result of homelessness much more often than the cause of homelessness. In fact, the availability and cost of housing seem to be the biggest reasons folks find themselves homeless.
During the council’s discussion of the camping ordinances, city staff shared a report from the Oregon Community Foundation about homelessness in Oregon. This report shows the direct relationship between high rents and homelessness. It also calls for more housing production, more subsidized housing and shelter creation among other suggestions.
The city council has taken many steps in recent years to address our lack of housing availability. The 2018 Housing Needs Analysis showed that we need housing for all income levels and housing types. It also showed us that we need 69 units per year for the next 20 years to catch up, and keep up, with our housing inventory needs.
As a result of these studies and recommendations from the consultants, the council adopted a Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) and we modified our building code to allow more diverse and affordable housing, among other strategies. The MUPTE has helped the development of several properties, two of which added 120 units in the last couple of years. We also are purchasing a large piece of property on the South side of town to help create industrial and residential development possibilities.
I understand people’s frustrations and share many of the same concerns. I, however, believe that the council has been making informed and measured decisions to address the current challenges. Many of these decisions have had unanimous votes and I am confident that we are making a difference.
That said, we cannot fix this situation overnight. Oregon’s land use laws and the current unhoused camping laws tie our hands so we will need to advocate changes to our state and federal legislators.
Mike Fleck is one of three Cottage Grove City Councilors being petitioned for recall. He wrote this for The Chronicle. He can be reached at 541-942-7302.