RYLEIGH NORGROVE / THE CHRONICLE - City manager Richard Meyers, left, and mayor Jeff Gowing discuss homelessness with a crowd at the Cottage Grove town hall.
COTTAGE GROVE – With nearly 250 people in attendance, community members, local leaders and advocates gathered in the Cottage Grove Armory on April 5 to discuss the rise of homelessness and localized application of House Bill 3115. The Armory was busy and bustling, with people attending either virtually and in-person.
“As someone who’s worked in public service for 35 years, thank you all for coming, this is very exciting to see,” said Richard Meyers, Cottage Grove city manager.
The number of people experiencing homelessness has been steadily increasing in recent years with a large portion (69%) of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. In Cottage Grove, the City reported 188 unhoused people, according to the Lane County Shelter Feasibility study produced by the Technical Assistance Collaborative.
“Any of us could be homeless at any time. This discussion is really about economic barriers and housing barriers. We need to learn from and care for these people,” Linda Diaz, a community member.
The City also reported that there are 4,003 homeless people in Lane County, and only 1,934 shelter beds. This means there are enough shelter beds to serve fewer than half of those experiencing unsheltered homelesness in Lane County.
Throughout the night, 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.
The town hall began with opening remarks from Mayor Jeff Gowing, who introduced the polling and table-talk systems.
“We want to hear from everyone – the quiet and the loud, the timid and the assertive … with the goal to provide the city council with additional input they need to move forward with that mission for all members of the community,” Gowing said.
The initial discussion was followed by a presentation by Cottage Grove City Attorney Carrie Connelly, who guided listeners through the federal and state-mandated laws codified in 2021 that impact the local application of House Bill 3115.
“We are trying to create regulations that bridge the gaps between what’s expected legally, and what our community expects of us,” said Connelly.
HB 3115 sets state restrictions for how cities can enforce anti-camping laws and requires local governments around the state to adopt policies that are “objectively reasonable” in regulating when, where and how people can live outdoors.
HB 3115 provides far less protection than an outright ban on anti-camping policies, which some lawmakers and advocates for the unhoused have sought in recent years. It would instead require that local laws addressing “sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property must be objectively reasonable … with regards to persons experiencing homelessness.”
After the legal discussion, 55% of people in attendance agreed to “do more than just the minimum required” what the state mandate requires to support and mitigate the impact of unhoused communities.
Meyers outlined the City’s proposed measures to comply with HB 3115. The multi-step plan includes first closing the community center and city hall encampments, preparing and adopting ordinances establishing “objectively reasonable regulations,” and developing a low barrier shelter off Highway 99.
“We want to do this not only because it’s the right thing to do ... but also because there may be some money behind it,” said Connelly.
“Where are the homeless people?,” Activist Venice Mason said. “Where’s their input on what’s happening in their own community? I’m formerly unhoused for three years, I’ve had three generations of my family homeless in this community. And what’s happening right now, right here, is an exclusionary process.”
The Chronicle followed up with the city manager to get an understanding of their community outreach efforts, and Meyers said that one of the central reasons there was no public comment was to “create an environment where (unhoused people) could feel comfortable to interact and participate and to avoid any shaming or intimidation.” Meyers reported there were personal invitations extended to “those experiencing homelessness in Cottage Grove at the showers, camps, and through personal contact with staff.
“The state of Oregon has essentially mandated and required that local governments now get to deal with homelessness,” said Meyers. “We will need to work alongside citizens, businesses and organizations to create additional temporary or permanent housing. It will take all of us.”