The Housing Opportunities Action Council may be facing a new legal threat over its efforts to site a homeless shelter downtown — and one of the group’s members has resigned from the organization rather than take a chance on being sued.
HOAC, a coalition of government bodies, nonprofit organizations and private service providers that oversees the joint Corvallis-Benton County effort to address homelessness, has been under heavy fire since May from opponents of its plan to open a “service center” in leased space at 545 SW Second St.
The center would house a men’s cold weather homeless shelter with 40 to 50 beds as well as the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center and the Stone Soup free meal service, both of which serve low-income and homeless clientele.
Decisions last week by the Corvallis City Council and Benton County Board of Commissioners to award funding for shelter operations paved the way for the plan to proceed.
On Tuesday, a group of 11 downtown business and property owners emailed a letter to the HOAC governing board expressing opposition to the Second Street location and asking the board to reconsider alternative locations, including the former Hanson Tire Factory building at 211 SE Chapman Place, which housed the seasonal men’s shelter last winter.
The Hanson Tire location, which had been off the table because its owner had other plans for the building, recently became available again after downtown property owner Rich Carone, who was promoting a northside location until neighbors there objected, said he had negotiated an option to buy the Hanson building as a shelter site.
The letter also asks for answers to eight questions the authors say deal with a “lack of transparency and a lack of due process” in HOAC’s decision-making process.
In addition, the letter appears to raise the possibility of a lawsuit, saying the board will soon be receiving a letter “from our legal counsel.”
It comes on the heels of a statement last week by another downtown property owner, Catherine Mater, saying she intended to file for a court injunction to block the shelter from moving ahead at the Second Street site. Mater also announced she would run for the City Council on the issue of how to deal with the city’s homeless population.
While the injunction request has not yet been filed, the threats of legal action are already having an impact on HOAC.
Community Outreach Inc., which operates a year-round homeless shelter primarily for families and veterans, gave notice on Monday that it is resigning from the group’s governing board. In a memo to HOAC’s co-chairs, COI board chair Karen Hanson and executive director Kari Whitacre wrote that “the potential liability to our agency is too great to continue as a member of the HOAC.”
Terri Homer, one of the downtown residents who signed Tuesday’s letter to HOAC, told the Gazette-Times her group has not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit to block the shelter.
“It’s a possibility,” she said in an interview. “We just hope it won’t get that far.”
A more immediate goal, Homer said, is to force HOAC to adopt a more inclusive and transparent decision-making process.
“We’re just frustrated that we weren’t included in any discussions,” she said. “We would like to offer an alternative and have it seriously considered.”
Homer owns a condominium in the Renaissance Building, which is on the same block as the proposed homeless service center. Alan Ayres, who also owns property on the block, also signed the letter, as did Vern McDonald, a partner in the nearby Marriott Hotel.
The other signers were Maggie Cooper, Jack Berka, Gregg Oberlin, David Hallett, Barbara K. Bang, Cathy Kerr, Joel Kimdon and David Kimdon. All of them either live or own property downtown, Homer said.
She added that the letter also reflects the sentiments of a large group of downtown business owners who were reluctant to sign their names for fear of alienating their customers.
McDonald also spoke to the newspaper.
“We hope that (HOAC) will review their process and ultimately come to a different conclusion” about where to site the shelter, he said. “But at the bottom, the letter is about making sure that HOAC — which receives public money — follows appropriate procedures.”
The issue came up for discussion Wednesday afternoon at the monthly meeting of HOAC’s governing board.
The Rev. Jill McAllister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, which operated the men’s cold weather shelter last winter and has agreed to do so again this year, said that “some very good concerns have been articulated” about the shelter, “especially around downtown livability” and related issues.
However, she also lamented the tone of some objections to siting the shelter and other services for the homeless downtown.
“To me, it looks like there’s a layer of fear and loathing that comes out as prejudice,” she said.
Rather than fighting the Second Street location, McAllister said, it would be better if concerned residents joined local faith-based groups that serve the homeless in discussing how to address potential problems that might arise.
Homer, who attended the HOAC meeting, took issue with McAllister’s remarks during the public comment period at the end.
“If you live downtown, you see the homeless problem all the time,” she said. “This is not based on fear and loathing, this is based on real concerns.”
In an interview after the meeting, HOAC project manager Shawn Collins said the group intends to respond to the letter from the downtown property owners. But he added that some of the questions about HOAC’s decision-making process might reflect an imperfect understanding about how the group operates.
“The decision to site the shelter is not one that is subject to the governing board’s vote,” he said.
Rather, that decision was arrived at by the individual organizations that intend to lease space in the Second Street building — Stone Soup, the Daytime Drop-In Center and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, the shelter operator.
“My job is not to drive that decision,” he said. “It’s ultimately up to the folks who are going to stand up and operate the shelter (and other services).”