Ontario City Council members met at a work session inside City Hall Thursday, Nov. 7. A location for a potential overnight shelter was one of the topics they discussed at the meeting. (The Enterprise/File)
ONTARIO – Malheur County has $150,000 hanging in the balance to set up an emergency overnight shelter for the winter.
The imminent funds come from a total of $5 million in one-time funding approved by the Legislature in the 2019 session to strengthen shelter services around the state.
“This is an opportunity for us,” said Barb Higinbotham, director of the non-profit Community in Action, at an Ontario City Council work session Thursday, Nov. 7.
Higinbotham said time is of the essence for coming up with a plan for the $150,000. The nonprofit is partnering with the city to look for a potential site for the shelter. If no decision is reached, Higinbotham said the money likely would go to another county.
City council members discussed potential locations at the meeting.
Higinbotham emphasized that the funding is for temporary housing during the winter. Whatever agreement the nonprofit and the city come to won’t resolve the need for a more permanent overnight shelter in the city, she said.
Higinbotham said that the Ontario non-profit is looking at a space that can be revamped to shelter 10 to 20 people on a temporary basis. She added that additional funding opportunities in the spring could help the city and the nonprofit achieve a more permanent solution.
Higinbotham and Ontario City Manager Adam Brown suggested a golf cart storage building at the Ontario Municipal Airport.
The council discussed the potential challenges of having an emergency shelter on airport property.
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Councilor Norm Crume, liaison to the airport committee for the past 11 years, expressed misgivings about the location.
“I’m worried about the safety of the airport and the liability for the city,” Crume said. “I’m in favor of the city doing something, what that is, I don’t know yet.”
Several councilors worried that folks would cut through the airport runway.
Councilor Dan Capron was concerned that a shelter at the airport would alienate tenants and wreak havoc on the city’s long-term plans of expanding and advertising the airport.
Other locations discussed by the council included property near an old gravel storage site and the front portion of the old city dump on Verde Drive.
Each location presented challenges.
“We’re definitely going to get complaints anywhere,” said Councilor Freddy Rodriguez, adding that the city could not continue to defer action.
“The challenge in dealing with this is that nobody wants it in their backyard,” said Brown.
Ontario currently has no overnight shelter, making it a high-needs area in the state, said Higinbotham.
Brown and Rodriguez pointed to a federal court ruling last year in San Francisco that said cities can’t make it a crime to sleep in public areas when there are no shelters available.
“We’re going to start seeing bigger conversations like lawsuits and human rights groups down here picketing,” Rodriguez cautioned.
The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision stemmed from a 2009 lawsuit in Boise filed by several homeless people who said the city could not remove them from public spaces when there was nowhere to go.
“You have your marching orders to bring us something back that hopefully is palatable to this council and good for the community,” Ontario Mayor Riley Hill told Higinbotham at the Thursday meeting.
News tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected]
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