City & Government, Community, Cottage Grove

Grovers chew on unhoused solutions at lively meeting

COTTAGE GROVE – As extra chairs were brought into the chambers and some community members still found themselves watching the July 8 council meeting from outside the double doors, it became apparent that even a heat wave wouldn’t stop over 100 Grovers from attending either in person or online.

Frustrated Cottage Grove community members approached the dais for just shy of an hour. One major concern from the community was the misconception that the City had already decided to collaborate with St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) to reassess the facilities for the Grove’s unhoused communities.

Some went as far as accusing the council of having unethical conversations behind closed doors about this partnership, drawing comparisons between that and city manager Mike Sauerwein’s hiring process, which was brought before the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. These people called out councilor Alex Dreher for allegedly telling a news outlet that the City’s partnership with SVdP was finalized.

However, Dreher did not make the comment in question. This community grievance was due to misinformation spread by evening anchor Gold Meadows in a KMTR news segment. She said, “The City recently partnered with St. Vincent de Paul to soon open a single-managed shelter and close the two remaining camps.”

This untrue information created the speculation that an agreement between the City and SVdP had already been signed. Yet, all that has happened thus far was the May 28 decision for City staff to develop a business plan with SVdP and a continuation of the conversation with SVdP at the July 8 meeting. No contract or agreement has been drawn up or signed.

Holding unhoused people accountable

Many pleaded with the City to start enforcing its laws and ordinances, focusing on the unhoused community’s blatant disregard of them.

Monica Peppers, a disabled woman recently diagnosed with cancer who moved to Cottage Grove just under two months ago, said that there were hypodermic needles in her bushes when she moved in. Thankfully, Peppers’ 10-year-old granddaughter, who lives with her, was not yet in her care when she found the needles.

“I’m for St. Vincent de Paul coming in as long as we can set rules that are enforced,” said Patrick Cartwright.

Katie Haynes suggested that unhoused Grovers should be mandated to help clean their mess from homeowners’ properties before being allowed to move, adding that a way to enforce this would be to provide each unhoused person with a ticket they must have signed off to prove they helped clean the neighborhood, they are no longer doing drugs, etc.

“What will it take to get you guys to instruct staff to enforce the current City ordinances and codes?” asked Johanna Zee. “The longer you do nothing to enforce the laws, the more you’re setting up this community for some vigilante type activity.”

Zee’s suggestions for the City were to:

• Increase the Cottage Grove Police Department budget for a temporary time to allow for officers to manage this situation

• Create a citizen task force to assist with enforcement and be consistent about it

• Reopen the Cottage Grove jail

• Collaborate with groups who want to help unhoused folks rather than enable them

• Pass an ordinance to stop needle handouts

Councilor Chalice Savage mentioned she quite liked some of the community suggestions that were made, singling out the potential for an Ad Hoc subcommittee or community-led task force so long as there are various demographics included in that team.

Legal counsel explains Grants Pass v. Johnson

City attorney Carrie Connelly briefed the council on the recent City of Grants Pass v. Johnson (2024) Supreme Court ruling before giving the floor to SVdP director of operations Jack Boison.

“Fortunately for you, many of your citizens actually seem to understand that (the Supreme Court ruling) didn’t change a lot for us here in Oregon, but the reason I’m talking about this is because the headlines certainly are mischaracterizing the situation,” Connelly said. “It may be that the legislature is going to reverse, amend, repeal any or all of ORS 195.530 (HB 3115), but right now, we’re still looking at the law basically as it was for June 2024.

“That does not mean that your hands are tied. I just want to emphasize that there are a lot of policy choices on the table for this council and all the councils in Oregon, just like there have been since Martin v. City of Boise (2018) was decided.”

Mayor Candace Solesbee’s concerns center Oregon’s legislature which provides complications to its Cities’ ability to follow the federal ruling, which may cause unhoused people in other Ninth Circuit Court states to make their way to Oregon. Savage shared this concern.

“We’re going to need all hands on deck with lots of ideas. This is exactly the conversation we should be taking to the state level and with our representatives and our senators and banding together and working with the League of Oregon Cities,” Savage said. “We are stronger together.”

Having explained that she would like City leadership to band together and question State legislators about HB 3115, Solesbee asked Connelly “what kind of legal legs do we have now as Cities?” Connelly replied, “If you want to see changes to ORS 195.530, I think the only option is to go to the legislature. I would exercise that right as much as this body wants to and as much as you want to individually.”

SVdP’s pitch

There was much back and forth between Boison and the councilors to fully grasp what SVdP is able to offer the City of Cottage Grove.

Boison made a some points very clear:

SVdP has already acquired all funding needed for the Hwy 99 site, which could be up and running by September, and it will know more about the funding for the connector site July 14, which will dictate its operational timeline. While SVdP will not be compensating the City (for operating on City-owned property), it will be taking the City’s financial burden, and it will be paying for necessary utilities.

SVdP prioritizes transparency and shows that value through data collection and submission, and it makes purposeful efforts to mitigate the impact the unhoused sites have on the surrounding community.

SVdP ensures there are no drugs within its facilities through tent checks and bag checks if there is suspicion of someone possessing drugs. This differs from how Carry It Forward managed the sites, according to Solesbee.

SVdP has never operated in a City with any exclusivity clause, meaning other nonprofits or organizations are more than welcome to also come to the City and ask to assist in tackling its unhoused crisis alongside SVdP.

SVdP must know the City’s decision at the Aug. 12 council meeting to ensure there is enough time to move forward with this partnership or utilize the funds raised for other philanthropy.

“I’m really trying to find the downside of this, and I’m sure there will be some that will,” said councilor Mike Fleck. “Bring fact-based (concerns), and let’s have that discussion.”

What’s next?

No councilors were ready to make any decisions this past Monday on such a multifaceted topic.

“I’m in favor of learning more and supporting you guys for that reason so these folks can have better care for themselves and so neighborhoods can get back to being neighborhoods,” Savage said.

Council agreed to meet Tuesday, July 23 – as the July 22 council meeting had already been canceled – to continue assessing how or if it would like to move forward with SVdP and ensure the City will meet SVdP’s Aug. 12 deadline.

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