ONTARIO — The day before an Ontario ad hoc committee met to discuss rules regarding camping of houseless individuals in city limits, a state of emergency for homelessness was declared by county officials.
Lt. Rich Harriman, emergency manager with Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, told the county’s governing body that the emergency declaration might help the county get funding from the state to deal with the crisis.
He read the declaration to the Malheur County Court, before they discussed and subsequently adopted it unanimously.
The declaration states how Gov. Tina Kotek has issued a state of emergency for homelessness on Jan. 10 for several counties and cities in western and central Oregon. It states that her emergency declaration said other counties could be included by self-declaration if they meet certain criteria. This includes, the unsheltered population in 2022 being greater than 30 households; the community declaring a local state of emergency related to homelessness; and at least one of the following: A) Unsheltered homelessness increased by 50% of more from 2017-2022 and B) The rate of unsheltered homelessness in 2022 was 80% or greater.
According to the resolution, Malheur County’s recent Point in Time count, which was conducted along with the nation on Jan. 27, only shows an increase of 12% in unsheltered homeless from 2017 to 2022. However, the rate is above the governor’s threshold, with 83% of the county’s homeless population considered unsheltered.
The burgeoning epidemic is said to be increasing hazards to the houseless population, the general population and first responders.
According to the resolution, the houseless population is facing such issues as severe climate, theft, violence and exploitation, illness from unsanitary living conditions and mental health.
The general population is “potentially” suffering from such issues as trespassing, increased waste and refuse accumulation, occupation of parks and public areas by houseless people and increased prowling and theft complaints.
Additionally, local police, fire and emergency medical services “have spent an inordinate amount of time addressing criminal complaints, including trespassing, theft and assaults.”
Ordinance violations at the county level have included illegal dumping of human waste, trash and refuse.
Vale Mayor Tom Vialpando was also at the meeting. He is one of those on a homelessness task force that was formed by the Oregon Mayor’s Association in the fall of 2022. During a conference in October, Vialpando said smaller, rural areas also are experiencing the same homelessness crisis as larger communities along the I-5 corridor.
That task force, which comprises dozens of mayors from throughout the state is seeking assistance for homeless remediation.
Vialpando said how once again, “the eastern side and the coastal side have been left out. So I don’t want to see on July 1, cities put something in force and kick everyone out into the county. You’ve seen what happened at Bully Creek with stripping copper and that was with two people living out there full time.”
Bully Creek is one of the many reservoirs in the area used for agriculture, which also has a geothermal plant.
“What we’re seeing now is an increase in property crimes,” Vialpando said.
He said the ordinance officer and sheriff’s deputies have “been really diligent on trying to keep” people in line with current ordinances, but issued a plea to work together on a solution.
“I would like to see the county approve [the resolution] and get something together with county and cities and become one,” Vialpando said. “I think us getting together and becoming one, we’re not kicking the can to each other this summer and making the problem worse.”
Ontario City Manager Dan Cummings and Mayor Deborah Folden were also at the meeting. Cummings told the court that Ontario is facing the same issues. He then invited members of the court to attend the city’s first ad hoc meeting regarding a time, place and manner ordinance. The draft document was ready to be reviewed by the group. The aim is for the city’s ad hoc committee to review the ordinance and kick it over to the council so it can be adopted by June 30.
“If not, we have to live with what the state puts upon us,” Cummings said. “We are mainly here to show support in your resolution. We agree: Without it, there is probably no chance of getting money and with it, who knows.”
House Bill 3115
Harriman noted that he would like to make himself available to help the cities as they begin to navigate the water surrounding House Bill 3115, which was passed in 2021 and which kicks in July 1.
The bill was sponsored by Kotek when she was then the House Speaker. As written, it will require cities or counties to ensure local laws for “sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property that is open to the public” are “objectively reasonable” regarding time, place and manner” for homeless individuals.
The bill specifies that “keeping warm and dry” cannot involve using fire or flame in order to survive outdoors in the current environmental conditions.
In 2019, the county passed an ordinance which banned using recreational vehicles as permanent dwellings and limiting their use as temporary homes. The newspaper was unable to determine whether House Bill 3115 will somehow impact that county rule.
Ad hoc committee
At the first meeting of Ontario’s Homelessness Ad Hoc Committee on Thursday, it was established who would lead the group. Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce CEO/President John Breidenbach will be the chairman; City Councilor Penny Bakefelt will be the vice-chairwoman and City Recorder Tori Barnett will be the secretary; all volunteered to do so, meeting no objections from the group. The rest of the group includes Manny Alvarado, owner of Alvarado Jewelers; Christine Hood, owner of Oregon Trail Hobbies & Gifts; citizen Marc Berg, who also works for the county; City Councilor Eddie Melendrez; and Sandy Kendall, with Origins Faith Community Outreach Initiative. Kendall was not at the meeting.
City Attorney Jeremy Green attended telephonically. He went over the premise of the draft ordinance, telling the group that it was related to rules surrounding the time, place and manner of homeless camping.
“What is sitting in front of you is a starting point for HB 3115,” he said.
He clarified that neither the law firm he works for nor himself were “necessarily married to any of the proposed regulations,” and encouraged the group to go over the information and change it, as needed, to fit Ontario’s needs. Along the way, he will help guide the group regarding the constitutionality to ensure it stays within those parameters.
Berg asked whether House Bill 2404, which was introduced this session would rescind HB 3115.
Green said he was not aware of any that had gained traction.
According to information on the Oregon Legislature’s website, HB 2404 would repeal the portion of HB 3115 that allows civil suits that challenge the reasonableness of local law. It was filed in the pre-session by Rep. Ed Diel, R-District 17. The bill had a first reading and was referred to the Speaker’s desk on Jan. 9. It has not moved from that chamber. The last action was Jan. 11, when it was referred to Housing and Homeless Committee with a subsequent referral to Judiciary.
The city’s ad hoc committee had a heavy discussion, with members asking lots of great questions, according to the attorney, but getting steered back in the proper direction by Breidenbach, Cummings and Green when straying too far from the task.
Alvarado sought to understand a starting point including what the dos and don’ts are, but Green explained the bill does not provide parameters or goal posts, just states “objectively reasonable.”
Melendrez wanted to focus on finding a place to move people to if they were being moved off of public property, worrying whether the city could face a future lawsuit if they didn’t have that in place first. Cummings said the city would eventually have to establish a place, but reiterated that for now the group’s focus was setting the TPM rules.
The draft ordinance provided was a combination of work developed by League of Oregon cities and other municipalities throughout the state that have already started the process.
During the meeting, the group reviewed some of the definitions in the ordinance, clarified that the ordinance only applied to public property, discussed what a reasonable time period and length of time would be for camping, talked about what they didn’t want to happen (such as inadvertently preventing the general citizenship from reasonable access to parks) and talked about what they did want.
After much discussion, the group collectively decided to take the draft documents home and work on them prior to their next meeting on April 6, sending any comments ahead of time to Barnett to include in the meeting packet. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers, upstairs at Ontario City Hall, 444 S.W. Fourth St.
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