Temporary emergency rule to help the homeless during COVID-19 pandemic

Not everyone has a home to “stay safe” in during the coronavirus pandemic. To help the homeless, Brookings City Council unanimously approved overnight vehicle camping in church parking lots.

Councilors adopted, 5-0, a temporary emergency rule during a special meeting on Monday, April 6, allowing “camping by homeless on the property of religious institutions, limited to the period we are under the governor’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order for COVID-19.” A Google search found 15 churches in Brookings.

The emergency rule includes provisions of Oregon Revised Statute 203.082 — “Camping by homeless on the property of religious institutions.”

The new temporary rule states that churches must request a free permit from the city that would allow the church to have up to three vehicles in their parking lot each night. The church must provide campers with access to sanitary facilities, including but not limited to toilet, hand washing and trash disposal facilities. The church also has to update the city with the number of vehicles staying each night at the church. 

Only churches with a permit would be allowed to offer vehicle camping. As far as the permits, “it should be real simple, more of a documentation so we know who is doing it,” City Manager Janell Howard said, describing it as a "checklist."

The temporary emergency rule only had the three guidelines. For instance, the number of people allowed per vehicle or if a church representative has to be at the church overnight are not addressed. The finer details were left to the church to decide.

“We are entrusting that they are going to do what is best for the community,” said Mayor Jake Pieper.

Prior to the temporary rule, the Brookings Municipal Code only allowed sleeping in a recreational vehicle or travel trailer on private property with a residential unit or during construction, not connected to the city’s water or sewer system and for not more than 14 days per calendar year.

Gov. Kate Brown issued the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order on March 23, but it does not specifically address the homeless. Brown did not provide an end date for the order.

As of Tuesday, April 7, Curry County had three confirmed cases of COVID-19.

After receiving a permit, city staff said they would not be driving around to each of the churches within the city limits to check on them. They would only do so if they received a complaint.

“As far as monitoring it’s no different than any other abatement,” said Tony Baron, City of Brookings Public Works and Developmental Services Director. “If it gets overused and abused — if they have five, eight, 10 RVs — we are going to get a call on it and we are going to abate it just as any ordinary nuisance abatement. I don’t feel our department needs to go by every church every day to see how many RVs are parked there. When the issue arises, it is going to fester to us and we are going to respond to it.”

Fines could be levied for non-compliance, Howard added.

Councilor John McKinney asked the city manager if churches specifically requested the city to allow temporary car camping in parking lots. Howard said she had not and pointed to Mayor Pieper for input.

“No one specific had approached me since we met last,” Pieper said. “I mean, this has been, you know, they didn’t have to approach me, this has been something that they have wanted.”

Pieper and Councilor Ron Hedenskog said this was a small first step and that larger questions were on the horizon.

“We need to deal with perhaps, warming centers,” Hedenskog said. “We need to deal with perhaps, a tent city, a small place where they can camp, maybe not even small, but at least small dwellings. We lost our mission that used to be out in Harbor. There is a possibility that an organization might want to pick up a mission here in the city and it might even be the city council would want to work with that to make it happen.”

Howard said doing something like this for the homeless was being worked on in the background for over a year and doing this now could provide valuable data for later decisions. 

“This is only temporary during this time and it gives you guys a good test period to see if it is working right before we adopt an ordinance,” Howard said.


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