Ontario city councilors shelve warming shelter plan

Officials planned to use Ontario’s former fleet shop at 55 N.E. 2nd Ave., as a warming shelter for area homeless. However the city council chose to delay a decision on the issue because of zoning and funding questions. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon).

ONTARIO – Those seeking shelter from the cold will have to wait a little longer in Ontario as the Ontario City Council put off a decision last week on getting one opened in town.

During a council work session last Thursday, City Manager Adam Brown recommended the council to approve a proposal to temporarily open a warming shelter, which nonprofit Community in Action would oversee.

However, the council decided to postpone voting on Brown’s recommendation, citing concerns regarding funding and land-use zoning of the homeless shelter.

The decision comes at a dire time for Ontario as “human services agencies are dealing with a lot of families who need places to get warm, take a shower, and get nutrition,” according to a city report.

As the extreme cold settles in, finding a warm, safe place to sleep becomes a serious and even deadly challenge for Malheur County’s homeless community.

Despite being a cold weather climate, the county currently doesn’t have an emergency cold weather response plan in place.

The community homeless shelter service and meal site closed in December 2016. Since then, a Homeless Coalition Task Force of community leaders has pursued short-term and long-term solutions to give the area’s homeless population refuge from the elements.

Community in Action stepped up to run a shelter and has proposed placing the temporary shelter on 55 N.E. 2nd Ave. City Manager Adam Brown explained that this site, which was the city’s former fleet shop, would be an ideal location and can be ready to use as soon as the city council approved.

The priority is to get people out of the cold, and the community is without its former shelter services, Brown said. He said Community in Action has guaranteed funding that would allow the organization to operate a shelter service immediately.

Brown recommended a temporary, four-month agreement with Community in Action to open a shelter service in Ontario. His recommendation came as the National Weather Service was issuing severe weather advisories.

“We need a building secured before we could secure our funding,” said Heather Echeveste, housing coordinator at Community in Action. She said the nonprofit recently received money from Oregon’s State Homeless Assistance Program.

Echeveste said that funding could technically be used toward leasing the building from the city, but the state homeless assistance program prefers that they buy the building.

To dissuade Community in Action and the city from signing a lease agreement, the state sent the nonprofit a 400-page addendum to consider in a lease.

“No matter what lease option we sign, whether its four months or one year, the city would have some type of rules that would have to be followed by the state for up to 15 years,” said Echeveste. “The direction we would have to go would be purchasing. So that would slow things down a bit. If he handed us the key today, we wouldn’t be able to do it tomorrow.”

City Attorney Larry Sullivan said other alternatives avoid leasing.

“If we needed to get some people in service now, an option is to do an indefinite lease that wouldn’t exceed six months and would be enough for us to get a final contract approved,” said Sullivan.

Some members of the staff and councilors questioned whether the city should be finalizing an agreement after Echeveste revealed that Community in Action wouldn’t be able to pay the full market price for the entire building in one payment.

This means that the Community in Action would have to negotiate a land sale contract with the city to secure the facility.

Sullivan and Mayor Riley Hill suggested that the city and Community in Action should iron out the details before entering into any agreements about using the facility for a shelter.

Ultimately, after a long discussion, Dan Cummings, community development director, pointed out a potentially bigger hurdle: changing land use zoning.

“We would have to go through the land-use process,” said Cummings. “The property would have to be rezoned because it’s currently zoned industrial.”

That would be something the city has limited authority to change.

The city council will revisit the issue regarding the shelter during its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377