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Linn County to swap property with Sweet Home for homeless services encampment

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Linn County has taken the first official steps toward transferring property to the city of Sweet Home to be turned into a “managed homeless encampment.”

The property was shaved off of the former Willamette Industries/Weyerhauser mill site to be set aside for this purpose. The property, dubbed the “knife property” because of its unique shape, is eyed by Sweet Home officials as the best place to put its homeless encampment.

Right next door, occupying the same parcel in fact, is a site that’s been dedicated by the county as an RV waste dump site.

Commissioners approved a resolution on Tuesday morning to transfer the 2.69-acre property to Sweet Home. After a 30-day noticing period, Sweet Home can approve the transfer and then that portion of the property is officially out of the county’s hands.

The city has been researching how to provide more homeless services for months, and it’s out of these investigations that this knife property was selected.

Commissioners say it’s ultimately up to Sweet Home what to do there and how to address citizen concerns.

“I’m hoping this size of property gives them the space to facilitate their mission while controlling the spillover, the impact to neighboring residents,” Commissioner Sherrie Sprenger said.

Indeed, before a single move has been made to develop the property, concerns about spillover already have become a controversial topic in Sweet Home.

“It’s a divisive issue, certainly,” Sweet Home City Manager Ray Towry said. “What I will say is … this is just a legal requirement. We can’t enforce our other ordinances until we … provide this kind of facility.”

Towry was referencing a 2019 decision in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the city of Boise’s anti-camping ordinance was unconstitutional. The opinion says that local governments cannot fine or arrest homeless people for camping or sleeping on public property if they do not have an alternative place for them to go.

Grants Pass found itself at odds with this ruling in 2020, when an unhoused woman sued the city, with help from the Oregon Law Center, over its ordinances against camping and sleeping. A judge ruled against the city in the first test of the appellate ruling, which applies to all jurisdictions in the 9th Circuit.

On the flip side, providing a local year-round shelter means that cities can go on enforcing anti-camping and anti-sleeping ordinances. Towry said this encampment is a way of fulfilling that legal requirement but also helping to lift individuals out of homelessness.

“This is a tool that’s not only compassionate and humanitarian in nature, but it also allows us to enforce ordinances that protect other private property,” he said.

The city’s plans for the site is based off a program in Walla Walla, Washington, which includes a series of Conestoga-style huts with doors, a small window and a locking plastic tote where people can store their personal items. The huts are raised up on wooden platforms and basically look like wagon tops, though they are supported with plastic membranes instead of leather or canvas.

City officials say the facility will be managed 24/7 and have nighttime security provided through a private contract (though supported by the city police department when necessary).

The fully fenced encampment will have a local residency requirement, where folks have to prove their connection to Sweet Home to secure a spot there.

Officials say this is, essentially, a way of making sure that unhoused people all over the region don’t flock to the small community in search of free shelter.

“It’s not that we’re not trying to be compassionate. … Just, as a small city, we have such limited resources,” Towry said. “We can’t support this being a regional facility.”

While Towry did not know what the total price tag for developing this parcel will be, he said the nonprofit Family Assistance Resource Center has secured grants that will pay for it. And officials are pursuing even more.

The goal is to have the shelter come at no cost to the city, though Towry said officials are preparing themselves to have to fork over something.

“The city is not naïve, and we certainly expect that we are going to have to make some contribution, but we hope it will be very minimal,” he said.

As for the cost of land transfer, it’s free. The county isn’t charging the city for the parcel, a fact for which Towry expressed gratitude.

“We’re just thankful,” he said. “Homelessness is a wicked, wicked issue and it’s going to take a lot of different agencies, … a lot of different governments and community members working together to make it better.”

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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