Accommodating those without shelter in Brookings is not going to happen overnight, Mayor Jake Pieper emphasized during a workshop Tuesday afternoon addressing the issue.
The city is considering its options in light of an influx of homeless people in the area.
After discussion Tuesday, the council decided the issue has enough merit to pursue and will address it further at an upcoming city council meeting. It was generally agreed, too, that a subcommittee might be needed to address details of any plan.
In the past two months, citizens have filled meeting rooms in town to demand city officials do something about an alleged increase in crime, littering, and other behavioral issues among those erecting campsites in various locations around Brookings. The campsites appeared soon after a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which cleared the way for the homeless to sleep on public property without fear of arrest if there is no shelter available.
Ideas range from the simple — allowing the unsheltered to camp overnight in designated areas — to construction of a more permanent shelter, which city officials have said should fall to faith-based institutions as it does not have the financial wherewithal to pursue it.
On the city’s part, merely addressing the problem could involve creating a new overlay on the city’s zoning map to allow for homeless accommodations, changing the comprehensive master plan, drafting new ordinances and developing a new designation for conditional use permits — all while determining if the majority of residents even want the city to address the issue.
“It is not unthinkable that 50, 75 Brookings residents show up at a meeting and say, ‘No way do we want a homeless shelter here,’” Pieper said. “It’s likely a majority view of the city.”
Currently, the city’s code does not have a zoning designation for such a use, said Public Works and Development Director Tony Baron. To create one would require identifying the use, determining how to implement it and blending it in with existing zoning.
“You don’t create a zone specific for this one thing,” he said. “You allow a use in a zone. Right now, you can’t come in and ask for (a permit for) a tent city. There’s not even a conditional use to ask for. I don’t think we have anything near (the definition.)”
Some cities, notably in California, have offered a portion of their industrial-zoned areas to accommodate homeless shelters or campsites. Brookings, however, has very little land zoned for industrial use.
Councilor Ron Hedenskog said he believes creating an overlay in which conditional use permits (CUPs) are required is the way to go. CUP requests go through the city planning commission and require public input.
“I want to make them all conditional use,” Hedenskog said of the process in which an applicant asks to do something on property and gets approval, with conditions. “I want it to go through the planning process. If a neighbor can’t weigh in on it, we’re really missing the boat.”
CUPs can be expensive, however, Baron noted, but can be avoided if a homeowner wants to convert a space within their home or atop their garage to provide rental housing. The Outreach Gospel Mission used to have a women’s shelter in the center of town, but it was in an area zoned for residential use and therefore, permitted.
Hedenskog said an overlay should ideally address a myriad of housing-related issues the city faces, including shelter for veterans, the mentally ill, students and the general workforce.
“We need to look at this in a broad-minded fashion,” he said. “All these things are needed. If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right.”
Councilor Bill Hamilton said he has yet to hear of a municipality that has successfully addressed their homeless problem.
“It’s a very sticky wicket when dealing with these situations,” Hamilton said. “Everything I’ve seen attempted has failed miserably inside about 60 days.”
He cited Brookings’ own Mill Beach access park, whose toilets are often clogged with hypodermic syringes, clothing and trash, resulting in expensive equipment repairs.
“It’s a mis-use problem,” Hamilton said. “We’re dealing with people who don’t take care of things and are causing a great expense to the community.”
He cited Clam Beach in Humboldt County where the zoning was changed at a day-use area to accommodate the homeless for the winter.
“They spent $2,000 to set it up — bathrooms, trash cans — none of which was utilized in a proper way,” Hamilton said. “Within six or eight months, the health department went in and said, ‘No, this is totally unacceptable; we’re going to condemn this right now,’ and had it shut down. It failed because of a lack of understanding between (the homeless) and the district they were in.”
He said other social institutions in town — he cited the Elks, the Boy Scout Hall and churches — should open their doors, particularly when hard cold snaps hit the area.
“The Boy Scout Hall can’t have sleep-ins, retreats for businesses,” he said. “That needs to change in today’s society. We have to get with the community to figure out a way to house these people.”
Councilor Brent Hodges cited an array of issues he feels contributes to the homeless problem that need to be addressed, including free meals, showers, food and clothing distributed by churches and other organizations in town.
He said he recently struck up a conversation with two homeless men who said “all their buddies in Crescent City were coming up here” because free food is readily available.
“Giving out free food at the churches and the food bank makes people feel good, but maybe something where they work to earn their way?” Hodges posited. “There used to be poorhouses. This handing things out to people and giving it and giving it and giving it isn’t the answer to this problem.”
He also said the city must consider the inevitable cost to taxpayers — well beyond law enforcement, trash and sanitation.
“Just look at the library — there was trash everywhere,” Hodges said of the encampment established there for three weeks. “It looked like triage for World War II, like a party. It’s not something I want my tax dollars to go toward.
“Nothing’s cheap and nothing’s free,” he continued. There’s going to be liability issues — what if someone gets raped in a tent camp? What if some little kid gets abducted? And no one’s going to want a homeless camp in their residential community, by their school or business. I wouldn’t feel good if my kids were playing in the neighborhood next to a tent camp.”
Baron noted that, even if someone requests a CUP to allow, say, tents on their property, people who adamantly oppose the idea could still take a city approval to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.