Ontario officials tackle effort to restore homeless shelter

Ron Verini, Ontario mayor, confirmed city leaders are now reviewing a plan to create a homeless day shelter at the former city public works building. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – Ontario city officials are considering converting a former public works building into a homeless shelter, restoring a service gone from the community for a year.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said that at nearly 5,000 square feet, the building is perfect for the need.

“Honestly, there couldn’t be a building more suited for it because it already has a kitchen, bathroom and a shower,” said Brown.

Brown said he envisions the city leasing the facility to Community in Action, a local non-profit that provides services to low-income residents.

The lease, he said, would most likely need to be cheap since Community in Action doesn’t have a large funding source to draw upon.

“That’s really the key,” said Brown.

Any plan for the public works building would require approval by the Ontario City Council. Brown said he could present a plan as soon as next month.

The Ontario plan is the most concrete solution to an ongoing homeless problem locally.

Local governments this year didn’t continue their support of an Ontario day shelter. Public officials haven’t advanced other solutions, in part blaming public apathy.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Don Hodge, Malheur County commissioner.

Hodge last year took the lead in convincing local officials to step in last year to keep open the area’s only day shelter.

Ontario, Vale, Nyssa and the county contributed funds – about $20,000 to operate a homeless kitchen once run by Harvest House. The nonprofit closed at the end of 2016, and the government money allowed a day shelter to run for about six months last year.

Hodge said such an effort could work again.

“If there was a meeting put together I would have to talk softly to the cities and to the county court. When I did it last year, it was put to me that, ‘hey, don’t come back every year wanting more money and a hand out,’” said Hodge.

Hodge said he is willing to “sit down and listen.”

“There has to be a solution, a program put in place to alleviate this. But it takes funds to do this stuff and we are one of the poorest counties in the state,” said Hodge.

Ontario Mayor Ron Verini supports a day shelter but said establishing one isn’t politically easy.

“The biggest challenge we have is not in my back yard. Anytime a 501c tried to develop a program like this it has fallen because people don’t want it in their community, not in their backyard,” said Verini.

Ray Rau, Nyssa police chief, said there is apathy in the community about the homeless.

“Everyone wants to pretend it isn’t there. It will take a community because it is a community problem,” said Rau.

Police often are on the front lines of the homeless problem that diverts their time from other police duties.

Rau said often homeless commit minor crimes that can result in a trip to jail.

He cited the recent example of a homeless man in Nyssa.

“Pretty soon the calls come in and the next thing he steals a shopping cart. So now he has committed a theft so he goes to jail,” said Rau.

The homeless man committed the crime, Rau said, because he wanted to get to a warm jail cell.

“You also have a large percentage of your homeless population that have mental illness. So, taking them to jail isn’t a solution,” said Rau.

Rau said his agency works with local churches to help the homeless or buys a bus ticket for them to move on to another town.

The homeless population, he said, is growing.

“I know there are hundreds you don’t see. Living outside the way they do is horrible. They are beaten, robbed and stabbed,” said Rau. Rau said most of those crimes are never reported.

He said the best way to solve the homeless situation is through a united community effort. He said, though, he isn’t sure that is possible.

“Most people don’t want to acknowledge it until it affects them. People ignore them and it frustrates me. They are human beings,” said Rau.

Scott Phelps, an Ontario police officer, said his department deals with homeless “on every shift.”

“People will call quite often for welfare checks. They see someone sleeping on the road and they are concerned about them and we have to go check them out,” said Phelps.

Phelps said when Harvest House operated its day shelter, police responded to fewer calls connected to homeless.

“That gave the Ontario Police Department, for sure, a significant break for a while because they gave the transient population a place to go. I would say it got significantly better when Harvest House was in place,” said Phelps.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.