RYLEIGH NORGROVE/CHRONICLE PHOTOResidents watch a presentation on homelessness at last week’s town hall in Cottage Grove.

COTTAGE GROVE – On Monday, April 11, nearly a week after Cottage Grove’s Community Town Hall on Homelessness, the city council met to discuss the outcome and impact, the ripples and the ruffled feathers, and most importantly, a path forward. 

Town Hall format a hot topic

The meeting began with a series of public comments from community members, some praising the format of the town hall, while others were adamant it was “rigged.” Throughout the town hall last Tuesday, attendees were prompted to answer a series of questions provided by the City. The polling data collected was then flashed upon projector screens around the room in real time, allowing for smaller table discussions. City-appointed moderators were responsible for hosting conversations after each question. 

Community member Bruce Kelsh spoke to the format saying, “The structure of this format gave everyone involved the opportunity to learn more about homelessness, become informed and to express their responses to the city’s proposal.” He said he was proud of Cottage Grove for “engaging in civil discourse,” “sitting with neighbors who had different opinions” and “preventing the town hall from becoming a forum in which only a few people spoke.”

Another community member, Johanna Zee, felt “shocked” by the results of the town hall and needed to “express the thoughts of herself and many other people.” 

“You cannot take these results seriously,” Zee said. “The questions and the process were manipulated from the start. It was a presentation for a proposal that was geared towards producing desired results. And bravo, many folks fell for it.” 

Zee went on to call out Councilor Mike Fleck for his involvement as the executive director of Community Sharing and his “vested interest in maintaining poverty and homelessness.” 

Fleck later responded to this comment, declaring a partial conflict of interest, saying, “The City manager met with not just our organization, but most of the nonprofits in our community that work with folks that are struggling in our community. Is it a perfect plan? No. Are there going to be people left out? You bet. But after two years, this is us putting our best foot forward.” 

Gowing’s ‘homework’ 

Prior to the city council meeting, Mayor Jeff Gowing assigned council members some “homework,” and asked each of them to present opinions and ideas on how to tackle homelessness in Cottage Grove using the information gathered by the city manager and with “free reign” to do “whatever they’d want to see happen.” 

Councilor Ken Roberts proposed a high barrier program with a focus on job readiness and personal accountability. 

Councilor Greg Ervin proposed to “raise the standard of living” for everyone in town, and crack down on people not obeying public-indecency and littering laws. He also proposed a community work program that would allow unhoused people to “clean up Cottage Grove,” and earn a paycheck, to address the “entitled attitude” and “bad behavior” of people without “civic accountability.”

Councilor Jon Stinnett proposed to use the current warming center shelter as a temporary solution, due to its proximity to amenities and services downtown. Saying, “The community center site is completely inappropriate. I will close out as soon as possible.” 

Councilor Fleck proposed the construction of a low barrier shelter, in order to, “If you throw up barriers right off the bat, folks have no incentive to talk to you at all.” He went on to express his support for the plan proposed by the city manager’s office, saying, “from a fiscal perspective, it’s the most responsible plan.” 

Councilor Chalice Savage proposed the construction of a medium barrier shelter at the Highway 99 site. She also reiterated her position as an advocate for personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, and having “skin in the game.” “I don’t believe that the populace who we are working with will need the low barrier housing. I believe the folks we are trying to help are willing to work hard, and just need that extra support.” 

Councilor Candace Solesbee outlined the issue as a “supply and demand problem” and suggested building a “navigation team consisting of city staff, police and social services to connect homeless people to proper services,” as well as more programs to “entice builders to put up multi-family units.” She was adamantly against any low barrier programs. 

In their own experiences 

After the public comment, the focus of the meeting shifted to opening statements by members of the council. Many spoke to the challenges of broaching such an emotional and complicated subject, and a few shared their own personal experiences with being unhoused. 

Councilor Roberts told his story. 

“Thirty-two years ago, I had a cocaine addiction and was living in a dumpster in San Francisco, Calif.,” Roberts said. “I woke up one morning and I wanted to change things … A friend took me to a rehab shelter … It changed my life. It made me who I am today. And it’s what I’d like to see us do here in Cottage Grove.” 

Roberts spoke of his desire to see a “big and bold,” high barrier program that values personal accountability, like his program did. “That program literally changed my life. And then I moved to Cottage Grove and this town gave me another one. We can make a difference, because not everyone out there is at the point of no return,” he said.

Councilor Savage spoke about her experiences living through cold winter days and nights in a van “down by the river.” And learning very young to not “cook a can of beans over a fire without venting the can because it will explode.” She spoke about creating a program with some “personal accountability” and some “skin in the game.” “I do truly believe that if you create an opportunity, the folks who are ready will take it,” said Councilor Savage. “They will step into the world of creating change for themselves. I don’t believe in a handout. I believe in a hand up. There has to be some buy in.” 

Councilor Ervin told audience members about his time living in an abandoned home after his parents kicked him out. “And rightfully so,” he chuckled. He went on to tell his story, saying “my car broke its axle, and threw the axle through its oil pan. I remember coming home one day and my car showed up fixed, with no expectation of anything. Someone took money out of their own pocket and time out of their day to help me out. And it was incredibly impactful to me.” 

The Highway 99 Site 

The intention of the discussion period was to “vote on how to move forward” and to “approve or deny the construction plans on the Highway 99 site as proposed by the city manager.” After a long, nearly two hour discussion, a few motions were put forth but none of them passed. 

Stinnett and Fleck spoke of their “heartburn” and the lack of resources available on that side of town, as well as the challenges of “dangerous foot traffic” near the highway. 

Savage was in full support of opening the Highway 99 site as soon as possible. 

Ervin said that the Highway 99 site was “costly” and did not feel like “it was the city’s responsibility to handle this issue.” 

Gowing expressed his first choice being the development of the Douglas site, “but (the Highway 99 site) is the cheapest, and that’s in the best interest of the community.” 

Both Solesbee and Roberts expressed that they felt “pushed into making a decision,” and that they did not want to move forward without designating a nonprofit to run the proposed site before beginning construction. 

Overall, there was no forward momentum or decision made about the Highway 99 site. 

Youth Advisory Council member speaks up

The meeting was also attended by Youth Advisory Council member Evelyn McDonald, a junior at Cottage Grove High School. While McDonald did not vote during the proceedings, she had an opportunity to speak on the proposed Highway 99 site and participate in the discussion. Many folks, both online and at city council have expressed concern about the site being in close proximity to Cottage Grove High School. 

“The first thing I’d like to mention is that students are homeless too,” said McDonald. “We have very high poverty rates, homelessness rates and drug abuse. To my knowledge, South Lane Mental Health does more than just deal with homelessness, and that proximity to the high school could actually help students.” 

The next city council meeting is April 25, at 7 p.m.