Forest Grove City Council discusses homeless shelter policy
Every winter, homeless shelters in Forest Grove take people out of the cold. But their services have never been legally sanctioned by the city.
At a Forest Grove City Council meeting Monday, Sept. 9, people who run the shelters urged officials to adopt two proposals that would formally permit seasonal and severe weather shelters.
They said homelessness is a growing problem and the policies are necessary to help institutions coordinate, expand and better provide services.
Five people spoke in favor of the proposals, saying while officials at all levels of government try to address affordable housing shortages, Forest Grove should formalize such stopgap programs. No one spoke in opposition to the ordinances, which the City Council will have an opportunity to adopt at its next meeting on Sept. 23.
"The fact is if people have a place to sleep inside, the impact on the city and the impact on the environment around the city is less," said Celeste Goulding, sheltering service director at the Forest Grove Temporary Emergency Shelter.
The Forest Grove United Church of Christ has offered temporary shelter for more than 20 years. A few years ago, UCC partnered with Sonrise Church — now called Old Town Church — to run shelters on two set nights per week. Last year, the partnership expanded to include a shelter run by the Emanuel Lutheran Church in Cornelius on Wednesdays and Thursdays for up to 21 individuals and three families.
If the City Council adopts the ordinances at its next meeting on Sept. 23, seasonal shelters could legally operate for up to 45 days, from Nov. 1 to March 31. Only 501(c)(3)-designated charitable institutions in the town center and the commercial zoning districts would be permitted to open a shelter. Institutions would have to apply for an annual temporary use permit.
Severe weather shelters could open on days outside the five-month seasonal period. Severe weather would be defined as two days or more with temperatures forecasted at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, snow accumulation exceeding three inches, a heat index of at least 95 degrees and other severe weather that could be a substantial threat to life or health.
At a planning commission meeting on Aug. 19, two citizens recommended the policy be expanded from only religious institutions to all 501(c)(3) charitable organizations so that Pacific University could run a shelter.
Currently, four religious institutions and the university could legally operate shelters.
City Councilor Malynda Wenzl asked senior city planner James Reitz if businesses in the area have been notified of the proposal. A public hearing notice was published by the city, but Reitz said it isn't standard practice to notify them separately.
During the public comment period of the meeting prior to the public hearing, Mark Strassel, owner of Mark's Lift Truck Service in Forest Grove, asked what councilors planned to do about unsheltered people in town.
"When I moved into town, I paid for a pretty good chunk of (a local improvement district) on the street to pay for the privilege of having a nice street, and now it's turned into a toilet, and I don't like it," Strassel said.
Mayor Peter Truax said the city received an email from Strassel about the issue, and multiple city officials have responded.
"The best I can say right now is we're working on it," Truax said.
During the public hearing, City Councilor Tim Rippe requested city staff to better define what services constitute a shelter.
Eric Canon, a longtime homelessness activist, said in response to Rippe's request, "It's not a situation where we can be picky. We need the support of the city to carry off the shelter such as it is."
Canon asked audience members who help run shelters in town to stand up. About 15 people stood.
"These people are saints," he said.
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