Council votes 'no' on shelter application


Last updated 9/12/2023 at 9:48am

Sisters City Council came to a 3-2 contingent decision to deny the application of the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter (SCWS) organization for an emergency homeless shelter at 192 W. Barclay Dr. in Sisters.

Councilors Gary Ross, Jennifer Letz, and Mayor Michael Preedin voted to deny the application by SCWS, while councilors Susan Cobb and Andrea Blum voted to approve.

The decision made in a marathon special meeting on Tuesday, September 5, is non-binding until a written decision is adopted. City staff will prepare a draft written decision and the Council will convene in a special meeting on Tuesday, September 19, at 5 p.m. at City Hall to review and vote on the final decision.

The SCWS application was made under House Bill 3095, which updated HB 2006, which sought to reduce barriers to siting homeless shelters in cities. The updated legislation allowed for a public hearing, though it offered no guidance as to how that hearing should be conducted, or by whom.

Until this month, the decision had been slated to be made by City staff. City council decided to take on making the decision in the form of a public hearing due to the importance of the decision to the community (see The Nugget, August 30).

The meeting was formatted to resemble a land-use hearing, even though, under statute, this was not a land-use process. It allowed for the applicant to present to the public and to the Council as well as for public testimony on the subject. From there, Council was to deliberate in open session, with the public able to hear the Council’s thoughts and questions on the topic.

The Council chambers were packed full to overflowing, and more than 100 people attended via Zoom.

Councilors asked questions of the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter applicant during their presentation in front of the crowd, allowing for the public to hear more about the shelter and the perspective of the councilors.

Each councilor offered their rationale for their vote on the application.

“I have no doubt that the Cold Weather Shelter has a good heart,” said Mayor Michael Preedin.

However, Preedin expressed concerns about safety — and one of the criteria of approval was that a shelter must not pose an “unreasonable” threat to community safety.

“I’m not convinced that this particular application would work the way it sounds like it should work,” he said.

Preedin also expressed frustration at a process that placed the onus on cities to allow for shelters.

“I think this was pushed on cities by the State and the governor’s office,” he said. “I think that was an unfair thing to do to cities, because not all cities are the same.”

The mayor hopes the applicant and others interested in the issue could go back to the drawing board and come up with a more community-generated proposal.

“I think there is a Sisters way,” he said.

Councilor Jennifer Letz echoed many of the mayor’s concerns, including issues with the process.

“I feel that these house bills were intended for larger communities with more resources — not a community like ours,” she said.

Letz said the City needs to grapple with root causes of homelessness, including affordable housing, and she wants to address what she described as deteriorating medical services in Sisters. She said she is heartened by evidence that citizens want to address the issue of homelessness, even if they opposed the shelter proposal.

“I think the majority of people in the community believe that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” she said. “They were just not jibing with what they were seeing and being presented with… There was a missed opportunity there to get a lot of hardworking and compassionate people together to kind of come up with some creative solutions.”

While she concurred with complaints about the process, Councilor Andrea Blum voted to approve the application.

She said she is “very, very upset and concerned that the ability of our community to make our own decisions about what happens in our community has been taken away from us.”

She noted that the homeless “emergency” looks different in different communities.

“It would have been, for me, so much more beneficial had we had the opportunity to work with the community on this kind of proposal,” she said. “We did not have that opportunity.”

However, she said, the City has narrow legal authority under the house bills, and the City could be overturned on appeal if they do not apply the legal intent of the legislation.

“The political intent was to get shelters in communities, and get them there now,” she said.

She noted that she is heartened by the apparent willingness of SCWS to work with the City to clarify and make more precise the scope of the project.

Councilor Susan Cobb voted to approve the application with conditions, describing it as “an opportunity to help those who can’t necessarily help themselves.”

She said she doesn’t see a threat of growth in the scope of the project, and that, with conditions in place defining and limiting that scope, the City can manage such concerns.

“I don’t think it’s a door that, once it’s open, can’t be closed.”

Councilor Gary Ross effectively cast the deciding vote, and noted that he could only vote to approve with strong conditions limiting operations.

“I don’t like the idea of some of the services that are being added to this till we know what’s going to work,” he said.

For Ross, there was a major sticking point regarding safety for those who would be using the shelter during the winter months. The area around the location at 192 W. Barclay Dr. lacks sidewalks or a walking path, and street lighting.

“There is a safety issue having people that may be walking on Barclay at night, especially in the winter,” he said.

With Ross voting to deny, the Council adjourned — but their decision is not yet final. City staff will prepare a draft written decision and the Council will meet at a special meeting on Tuesday, September 19, at 5 p.m. in Council chambers to review and vote on the decision.

Luis Blanchard, president of SCWS, spoke with The Nugget about what’s next.

“We don’t know what the written report will say,” said Blanchard. “It sounds like the Council is alluding to the safety issue of the neighborhoods, and also the safety of the homeless walking on Barclay.”

The SCWS has a few options based on the official written report. One of their options is a legal appeal.

“We wouldn’t want to use the funds we’ve procured or fundraised for legal fees, that’s just not fair. If this weren’t backed by the governor’s office to support an appeal, we probably wouldn’t, we are just too practical about it,” said Blanchard.

“It could very well be that the shelter board is going to wait for another chance. According to the governor’s office, there will be more funds coming through. If this thing gets drawn out to beyond the time we can use these funds, which must be spent by January 10, then we would pull our wings in and continue work as we did last year,” he said.

Blanchard is hopeful that there will be refinement in the language of the bill in the legislature, including tightening up the timeline, and who can make the decision.

“When listening to the councilors, so many of them were talking about issues that were outside of the criteria that is supposed to be considered in the scope of the bill. I think they are looking at the best interest of Sisters, but the bill is focused on specific criteria listed,” said Blanchard.


Reader Comments(4)

Greg writes:

This is an excellent article on, among other things, the importance of post grant financial sustainability for these shelters. And it is rocket science to establish such sustainability and accountabilty given the sheer number of reported closures once the grant money is spent.

Greg writes:

Initially SCWS stated it could not conduct contraband searchs as the grant use criteria prohibited it. Now he offers they do/will perform such searches. Where are the SCWS finalized policies and procedures for this and other operating issues? What is their post grant sustainabilty plan? If the shelter fails who ends up owning the building? Unless SCWS becomes transparent in its responses as a community partner, its now communicated intent to litigate is, perhaps, not surprising. I favor a community partnership shelter-wise and that takes work, not rhetoric.

SCWS writes:

Greg, you again are incorrect. We do search any bags and have individuals turn out their pockets. We ask them to forfeit any weapons until they leave and most have do so willingly. There is so substantial safety issues of record and if these issues you point out are in fact the reasons for the denial we will appeal and most likely win. I really wish the city would have been serious to actually want to work with us instead of playing to the crowd. It will be an embarrassment to city to be litigated against.

Greg writes:

As the mayor has said for the public record the over-arching issue is Safety. Beginning with safety at the proposed shelter for staff and clients. SCWS has affirmed it can't or won't conduct contraband searches to include for drugs, alcohol, or weapons. Despite there being no prohibition tied to the grant money against such searches. In fact, they are the norm at professionally run shelters. This issue and others raised fell to the SCWS to successfully address at the public meeting and their responses did not pass muster. The vote taken sent the correct message.


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