Dan Cummings, Ontario Community Development director, points out a place in the city that could be the site for a tiny home project to help the homeless. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Local police report they are confronting a rising number of calls related to homelessness even as the city of Ontario is crafting a plan to restart its tiny house program geared toward easing the burden of the displaced.

“We have seen an uptick in homelessness,” said Steven Romero, Ontario police chief.

Travis Johnson, Malheur County undersheriff, said his deputies are also fielding more calls regarding the homeless.

“Most of the time we try to move them on, especially if they are in place they shouldn’t be, and most of the time they will eventually move on but it takes a lot of time and is a huge cost to the taxpayer,” said Johnson.

A most recent example, said Johnson, was a homeless gathering near Alameda Elementary School.

“The county footed the bill to clean it up once. Then it went right back to the same old thing,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the homeless gathering near the school broke up during the past few months but the issue of displaced people isn’t fixed.

“It’s musical chairs without taking a chair out,” said Johnson.

Johnson said there are homeless encampments scattered across the county.

“Anywhere they can find a place to park and can’t be seen for a few days,” he said.

That includes, he said, places above Bully Creek, along the Owyhee and Foothill Road.

Romero said there are a host of factors in play regarding the local homeless situation.

“Part of it is the weather. It is summertime and people are not hunkered down or focused on staying warm and alive. Then you add Covid to the equation, the dilution of accountability for drug crimes and all these civil disturbances,” said Romero.

Romero said the homeless burden often falls on the local cop on the beat. Typically, he said, police are limited in what they can do for a homeless person.

“Some cases you move them along, though it depends on what the reporting party wants,” he said. “We can give them trespass warnings or trespass citations but they can’t be arrested because the jail won’t take them now because of Covid,” said Romero.

Romero said many of the homeless struggle with mental health issues or dependency on illegal narcotics.

Romero said that means his officers must be three things at once - a counselor, an informal psychiatrist and an enforcer of the law - when they confront a homeless individual.

 “They are really only trained for one of them – law enforcers. We train them on communication with a typical, non-clinically challenged person,” said Romero.

Romero said the homeless problem is complicated.

“We have a failed social system that isn’t working here or anywhere to deal with the level of need that exists,” said Romero.

He said he faced the same challenges with the homeless 25 years ago when he worked as a police officer in California.

“It was no different,” he said.

Oregon and California, he said, confront the homeless situation in separate ways.

“It was much easier to get emergency psychiatric care and here it is an absolute challenge because we don’t have full wrap-around services,” said Romero. “We don’t have county facilities around the state to deal with it.”

In March, the number of homeless residents in Malheur County stood at 377, a jump from 198 in 2019.

Searching for answers

One solution to the homeless challenge locally may be the reintroduction of a pilot program that began late last winter and ended in April.

The project, spearheaded by Ontario city officials, Community in Action, a local nonprofit, and Origins Faith Community Church, consisted of 16 shed-like tiny homes installed between Northeast Fourth Avenue and Northeast Third Avenue.

The tiny home project didn’t escape controversy as the Nichols Accounting Group, an accounting firm that operates adjacent to the areas where the tiny homes are, sued the city, Origins Faith Community Church and Community in Action to halt the project.

In early February, though, Circuit Judge Lung Hung denied a temporary injunction and cleared the way for the project.

A report on the tiny home project from Barb Higinbotham, Community in Action executive director, showed 39 families were served by the end of the project and eight families subsequently moved into regular housing.

Higinbotham also reported that two homeless individuals found jobs and four people were connected to family members. Three veterans, Higinbotham reported, were connected to services “which will provide even more ongoing support for their households.”

“Our results were really positive,” said Higinbotham.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said the pilot program was a learning experience.

“I think it was successful in terms of the number of people that were out of the elements. So, it was successful in terms of outcomes and learning,” he said.

The Northeast Fourth Avenue location was only temporary and now the Homeless Siting Taskforce – consisting of city officials, Community in Action, local church leaders, business owners, landowners and volunteers – wants to find a permanent location for the tiny homes.

“We have actually five different sites we are considering,” said Brown.

Brown said the task force will use specific factors to determine the eligibility of a permanent site for the tiny homes.

“We are trying to fill in this little matrix so we can make an objective decision and then we will put it out to the public for their thoughts,” said Brown.

The key factors for a fixed site, said Brown, are proximity to the day shelter at Origins Faith Community Church, proximity to a bus stop, services on site and whether the site could be used long term or short term.

“If we want to make it permanent, the city has to actually approve a location and this is why the city is involved. Otherwise it would be done by Community in Action or other service providers,” said Brown.

Brown said the task force is looking at permanent sites “mostly in the northwest quadrant” of the city.

A site next to Origins Faith Community Church, at 312 N.W. 2nd Ave., is the furthest along in consideration, said Brown.

That site, owned by Caldwell resident Stephanie Cooke, is big enough to accommodate the 16 tiny homes and is next to the homeless day shelter operated by Origins.

“I think it is a good site,” said Dan Cummings, Ontario Community Development director.

Cooke, a member of the Caldwell-based Community Care Team, a community-based non-profit, said she is willing to open up the property for the shelters.

“I am excited to have them choose my property,” said Cooke.

Cooke said she is in tentative talks with the city and the Homeless Siting Task Force about the property but no deal is set.

“We’ve put together a site map and a proposal to see how it looks. Site preparation, utilities - that all has to be taken care of and we are under discussions with all of those things,” said Cooke.

Cooke said she and her non-profit believe in helping communities.

“My philosophy is that we, as a community, are only as healthy as how well we take care of those having difficult times. If we can’t take care of those people who can we say we are?” said Cooke.

Neither Higinbotham or Romero see the tiny home project as a perpetual solution to the homeless situation, but both believe it is a step in the right direction.

“It is a tiny solution to a big problem,” said Higinbotham.

Romero said the tiny home project can be “beneficial if you are going to help people who want to help themselves.”

“That is a transitional program and works great for people who are willing to improve their conditions. It will do absolutely nothing but keep people warm or cool who have no intention or desire to improve,” said Romero.

Brown said public support for any homeless housing project will be crucial.

“I don’t want to get beat up by not running through some kind of public vetting process. I want to make sure we go through a methodical process,” said Brown.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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