Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett said during a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 5, that he doesn’t think it will be possible to open a temporary warming shelter for homeless residents this winter.

“I don’t see how we could get anything done before winter’s over,” Bennett said.

He said the county lacks community support, a detailed plan and people to work at a shelter.

Bennett suggested as an alternative that the county supply local police agencies with sleeping bags and tents that officers could give, at their discretion, to people who need them.

He also said police can encourage homeless residents to seek services through agencies such as New Directions Northwest and the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“I think if we raise the bar to the level where they’ve got to go and they have to meet with the officer and they have to show something and then we connect them up and they have services,” Bennett said.

He said the goal is to ensure people have some protection from winter weather.

Then commissioners and other officials can continue the discussion later this year about potentially opening a warming shelter.

Bennett and Commissioner Bruce Nichols voted for a motion to provide the sleeping bags and tents.

Commission Chairman Bill Harvey, who initially proposed the warming shelter on Dec. 1, 2021, did not vote on the motion.

“I still believe there should be something done on an emergency basis, my own personal opinion obviously, as far as cold weather concerns that we have from time to time,” Harvey said.

After commissioners initially discussed a warming shelter Dec. 1, the Baker City Council had a work session on Dec. 29.

Baker City Police Chief Ty Duby said his officers have been interacting with about 10 homeless people in town recently.

Resident expresses concerns about fairgrounds

During the commissioners Jan. 5 meeting, Suzi Smith expressed concerns about a warming shelter and urged commissioners to not pursue opening one in Baker City.

“After listening to Bill Harvey’s proposal at the Baker City Council work session, I’m convinced that it’s not necessary, it would be both expensive financially and detrimental to the quality of life in Baker City,” Smith said.

Among the issues Smith cited are how many people would actually use a shelter, the potential that a shelter could attract people from outside the area, and possibly competing with other organizations that work to solve the root causes of homelessness.

“Would it not be better to coordinate and support the efforts of those employed in the endeavor already?” Smith said. “Why do we not make arrangements to transport those in need right now over to the overnight warming center that La Grande already has? Would a supporting role with the warming shelter in La Grande not solve the emergency and also give us time to better assess the problem and seek solutions before making unnecessary mistakes?”

She said emergency preparedness is a wise pursuit for the county but “this is not an emergency at this point.”

Smith said she has concerns about opening a shelter at the fairgrounds, noting that multiple groups, such as 4-H archery club, has events there.

“They also have monthly meetings by one or more groups in the event center and those are a lot of kids that run around inside and out and it could be dangerous having homeless people there. We don’t know who we are serving,” Smith said.

Mark Johnson, a member of the Baker County Fair Board, told commissioners that the Cockram Arena is not a suitable location for a shelter, but the open air beef shed could be.

“There’s still a lot of opposition to it,” Johnson said.

Nichols asked county attorney Kim Mosier about the legal issues involved with people camping on public property.

Mosier said the county does not have an ordinance about removing people from public property.

“We have to be really careful and do it in a very specific way,” Mosier said.

She said they can go through a process to ask people to move on, needing to give specific notice and working with individuals.

In November 2021 Duby said he plans to ask the Baker City Council to approve an ordinance limiting where, and when, people can camp on public property within the city limits.

Duby said he was prompted to act by a bill that the Oregon Legislature passed earlier this year and that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law on June 23.

The law — introduced as House Bill 3115 and passed by the Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate — is based on a 2019 federal court ruling in a Boise case that in effect prohibited cities and counties from making it illegal for people to sleep outdoors in public spaces if the jurisdiction doesn’t provide indoor alternatives.

Housing options

Nichols, who is a member of the board for both New Directions Northwest and Community Connection, said he has had conversations with officials from both agencies about the homeless issue. He said they had a rent program that was only allowed to put people up in motel rooms for three days. The program ended Dec. 31.

“Community Connection also has a program called Stable Housing. They can put somebody up someplace for up to 30 days and no longer as long as the person is willing to get signed up for services and move forward,” Nichols said.

He said what they are finding at New Directions and Community Connection is most people who are thought to be homeless do not want any services, they do not want to be told what to do, they do not want their lives infringed upon by law enforcement.

“Mental health issues are becoming worse and worse all the time because of drug activity and what is going on in the whole country right now,” Nichols said. “And it’s not just Oregon, it’s the whole doggone country. So, there’s been a lot of discussions on this and nobody, and I mean nobody, has any answers on this.”

He noted that the warming shelter in La Grande has moved since it first opened in 2017. He said he doesn’t believe it’s feasible to transport people from Baker City to La Grande, even if people wanted to go.

“It’s difficult for us to get anywhere with this other than just a temporary solution and throwing a whole bunch of money at this problem without a permanent solution, I think, is a bad road to go down,” Nichols said. “It makes no sense to throw a whole bunch of money at a problem and two years later the problem still exists and there’s no funding to continue that program.”

He said he doesn’t like the idea of setting up a shelter at the fairgrounds, or buying or renting a building elsewhere for that purpose.

“Mark’s idea, I think, by having people have to go to law enforcement and actually apply for these things, I think it’s the right way to go,” Nichols said.

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