Alex McHaddad, 11-4-2021

The La Grande City Council’s November meeting covered homelessness during the City Council Comments period. EOAlive TV viewers can watch the discussion on-demand between Minutes 1:14:30-1:29:00.

Councilor John Bozarth asked city staff to address the consistent presence of homeless individuals in Max Square, expressing that the congregation is an eyesore before addressing his understanding that these individuals are causing problems.

City Manager Strope revealed that he had received a letter from local business owners about the problem, and that a meeting to address concerns will be held the following week with Police Chief Gary Bell and Parks Director Stu Spence. Strope conceded that the city’s legal options are very limited.

Council comments on potential solutions varied, with city staff noting numerous legal challenges. Councilor Bozarth requested followup on the potential to turn Max Square over to a corporation or a nonprofit since private entities have more options available to enforce trespassing violations. Strope believes that this may not be a solution due to deed restrictions on the property.

Mayor Steve Clements asked Police Chief Gary Bell if the La Grande Police Department is experiencing increased complaints against homeless individuals related to legal infractions beyond just loitering. Chief Bell offered far more expansive comments on the law enforcement side of the issue.

“This is not a local legal environment, quite frankly,” said Bell. “I’ve communicated with Chiefs, you know, statewide, from Astoria to The Dalles and other like-sized communities, and it’s probably not lost on all of you that most cities are dealing with the very same social issues, quite frankly. And, and I’m sorry to tell you that we have not escaped that.”

Bell then addressed Mayor Clements’ question directly. Revealing that fewer calls for service related to indigent residents are arriving, Bell reasoned that this is due to people becoming accustomed to seeing homeless individuals congregating downtown. LGPD may technically enforce actual criminal law and violations of park rules, but he offered an anecdote regarding the practicality of enforcement. “Late this summer, early fall… we were using our city ordinance and we had trespassed an individual and then later arrested that individual for being there in violation of the trespass order. And that case cycled through our local circuit court and it was dismissed.”

Changes in law and court precedent are making tackling homelessness more difficult. “There’s a lot of tools that we don’t have in our toolbox anymore to fix some of these social issues,” said Bell, referencing Ballot Measure 110. The initiative petition passed by voters in the fall of 2020 abolished Class A Misdemeanor penalties for drug possession, including one year in prison and a $6,250 fine. Drug possession is now only a Class E violation with a maximum penalty of a $100 fine that may be waived if the violator receives a health assessment. Bell went on to discuss how the 2018 9th Circuit Court ruling in Martin v. Boise created additional restrictions on homeless population management that were codified into state law in HB 3115.

Councilor David Glabe questioned the application of rules against smoking on city parks at Max Square. Parks Director Stu Spence weighed in, citing Chief Bell’s experience. “It is a park rule, absolutely, and the police have park rules at their disposal. And I know like [Chief Bell] alluded to, they’ve had some of those interactions and not been successful at the court level. So like he said, it’s complicated.”

Councilor Mary Ann Miesner asked if park rules can be modified to prohibit public camping. The discussion that followed between Councilor Miesner, Mayor Clements, Chief Bell, and Councilor Gary Lillard ultimately discerned that public camping cannot be prohibited for individuals who are homeless, unless a specific overnight camping area is maintained. Furthermore, cities must have indoor housing options available for a certain percentage of individuals who are unhoused.

Bell elaborated that difficulties enforcing overnight camping prohibitions at public parks are, “specific to homelessness. And what the courts ruled is that If a person is involuntarily homeless, then you can’t criminalize their need to be able to rest, lie down, or sleep in a public space… We have those rules, and have. And most communities, municipalities, and entities of government have had this specific ordinance that addresses what you’re talking about, and we have that. And we have for years.” Enforcing laws perceived as criminalizing these needs may subject the City to lawsuits, Bell concluded.

Moving forward, Chief Bell and Director Spence will be meeting to discuss local solutions to homelessness. Bell says that in 28 years of service, relationships with local partners and access to resources has never been better. He recently received a copy of a new, untested ordinance from the City of Medford that implements the provisions of HB 3115. Bell also called for community engagement and education downtown with business owners to let residents know that homelessness is not going unattended. In a response to a question from Councilor Nicole Howard, Strope verified that the Warming Station will open in November. A Warming Station representative clarified that the opening date is November 21.

EOAlive TV viewers can watch the full, unedited footage of the November 3 La Grande City Council meeting online without modifications or commentary. The Council discussion regarding homelessness can be viewed between Minutes 1:14:30-1:29:00.