Friday, December 14, 2012

Council Approves Garfield Site for Pilot Project

Originally posted in the Register Guard on December 11 by Saul Hubbard
It won’t be up and running for the coldest snaps of this winter as they’d originally hoped, but homeless advocates won their biggest bureaucratic victory to date on Monday for their proposed Opportunity Village Eugene.
After examining potential sites for several months, the City Council picked a vacant lot on North Garfield Street near Roose­velt Boulevard as the future site of a “micro-housing pilot project for the homeless.” The vacant lot was among five sites under consideration.
Aerial imagery of the site on North Garfield Street towards the end of its use as a trailer park.  The site has since been sold to the city and is currently vacant.
The council approved, on a 6-1 vote, a motion that allows city staff to select a nonprofit organization to operate the pilot program and to enter into a lease agreement with the agency for use of the city-owned property. Councilor Mike Clark voted against the motion, and Councilor George Poling was absent.
“We’ve got a bunch of citizens who’ve put a huge amount of work into this proposal,” Councilor Alan Zelenka said after the vote. “I didn’t want to wait another month. I felt we had enough information (about the sites) to move ahead now.”
Zelenka cautioned that the process of securing a conditional-use permit for the homeless site could take “between four and six months.” That means the village might not be operational until April or June, at the earliest.
With little discussion, the council also expedited an ordinance that will allow 6-foot-by-14-foot wood-frame structures, called Conestoga huts, to be used by the homeless population at city-endorsed vehicle-camping sites.
After the city’s legal counsel determined that the structures, made of plywood and siding with a vinyl roof, could not be considered tents — which are allowed at the vehicle-camping sites — the council unanimously signed off on discussing and potentially approving a new ordinance allowing for the huts at those sites at its meeting on Wednesday. The speeded-up process means the ordinance will require six votes, more than a simple majority, to pass.
Earlier in the evening, the councilors heard close to 90 minutes of often-impassioned testimony on the issue of homelessness in Eugene, much of which centered on criticism of the council’s inaction on the Opportunity Village project.
Speakers, fearful that the council would punt on the proposal until next year, stressed the dangers of living on the streets, from physical violence and the threat of arrest to the harsh winter cold. Instead, a council majority decided to settle on the Garfield site before its winter recess.
“I think it’s a very good choice, given the choices that we have,” said Councilor Claire Syrett.
Added Zelenka: “It made sense from the standpoint that it was the site with the least amount of controversy.”
Conversely, Clark, who said he is supportive of many other initiatives to help the local homeless population, said he believed the concept itself hadn’t received enough vetting.
“It’s still something that we haven’t had as thorough a discussion about ... as we should,” he said.
Zelenka said many of the finer details about the pilot project will have to be worked out by city staff.
Under Zelenka’s motion, the lease with the nonprofit agency requires “insurance to protect the city against liability.” The pilot project will sunset on Oct. 1, 2014. No later than March 2014, the motion states, the city manager will report back to the council with recommendations for improvements, should the council decide to continue the experiment.
The council did not address a request by a homeless advocacy group and several members of the audience to eliminate the city’s ban on overnight camping on public property, including city parks.
The other sites under consideration for the homeless village had included the former Naval Reserve Center property at West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street, near Chavez Elementary School, and three grassy parcels next to Interstate 105 near student apartment complexes northeast of Autzen Stadium.