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Council discusses camping clampdown
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Council discusses camping clampdown

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The Corvallis City Council wrangled once again with the problem of homelessness Monday night. Once again.

This time councilors were reviewing a four-step process by which the city is looking to return to normal enforcement of camping regulations.

The city stopped enforcing camping ordinances in March as a result of state orders related to the coronavirus. Those orders have not been rescinded, but city officials said it is time to act because of fire danger and the challenge of so many campsites being in riparian zones that are subject to environmental degradation because of waste from the camps.

Here is a look at the plan that was discussed for about one hour (see the website for the full text of the plan):

• The first stage, which is set to take place almost immediately, focuses on education and outreach.

• Step two, after 30 days, includes posting and cleaning up all camps except those on land north of the men’s cold weather shelter near the BMX park. The site is supported by a hygiene center that features showers, laundry facilities and food. 

• Stage three, after 60 days, limits BMX park camping to sites within 150 feet of the shelter, with the city also returning to its pre-COVID-19 response to camping.

• In stage four, 90 days down the road, city officials hope that the shelter, churches and nonprofits will seek permits for microshelters on their properties to help ease the demand for camping spots. Posting and camp cleanups also  will occur citywide.

The plan does not require council approval, with City Manager Mark Shepard noting that the main way to influence the plan would be to change city ordinances on camping.

Some councilors felt blind-sided by the plan, which was dated Sept. 15 but  had not been discussed at the council’s leadership meeting the previous day.

“When was this decision made?” asked Ward 6’s Nancy Wyse. “We didn’t talk about this at leadership and I’m vice president of the council. I should have known about it.”

“I’m in a moral dilemma here,” said Ward 2’s Charles Maughan. “I agree with a good portion of the plan, but I have issues with step three. We’re still in a pandemic and there are only so many places the homeless can go. They are members of our community. We need to show them some dignity. We need to come up with a location that eases the fire and riparian concerns."

The challenges to step three were obvious from a brief tour of the shelter/BMX camp on Monday afternoon. Literally dozens of tents and vehicles were stationed well beyond the 150-foot line.

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“And we need a long-term solution," added Maughan. "We’re not going to solve this in 60 days.”

Mayor Biff Traber agreed on the timing issue, but he chose a different number.

“Thirty days is pretty quick given we are just seeing it for the first time,” he said.

“I will take the responsibility for not communicating with leadership on this one,” Shepard said. “But it’s important to keep in mind that it is only because we have suspended camping that we are in this position. This is what we have done in the past.”

The key question, posed by councilors, and one social service provider in an email to the Gazette-Times was: Where will the homeless go?

Not a lot of answers were forthcoming. The use of more microshelters was discussed as well as possible partnerships with Oregon State University, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Land Management, Benton County, nonprofits, churches and businesses.

But partnerships take time. And the clock is ticking.

“Where will they go?” asked Aleita Hass-Holcombe, board president of the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, which provides services to the homeless from its location on Southwest Fourth Street. “Posting people only moves their visibility from place to place. Where will they go?”

In other action Monday:

• Councilors honored retiring city directors Mary Steckel (Public Works) and Nancy Brewer (Finance). Both individuals have served the city for 30 years, with Brewer in her director’s role for 27. Steckel became director in 2011. Brewer, Steckel and a third retiring city director, Karen Emery of Parks and Recreation, will be the subject of a special Gazette-Times report on Oct. 4.

• Councilors unanimously approved a program that will assist low income residents with their city services bill, which includes water, stormwater, wastewater, public transit, urban forestry, sidewalks, street maintenance and public safety.

The program offers $25 per month credits for qualifying families, with a 35 cent monthly surcharge taking effect on other customers to help pay for the program.

Participation in the Oregon Health Plan, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Corvallis School District’s free lunch program can be used as qualifying metrics for low-income residents. The program takes effect Jan. 1 and will reviewed regularly.

• Councilors unanimously approved an update of the municipal code that replaces gender-specific language with gender-neutral language.

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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