Ontario homeless project firms up – but lawsuit looms

Work is moving ahead on a temporary housing site for the city’s homeless population on Northeast Third Avenue in Ontario, even as officials grapple with a lawsuit filed by Nichols Accounting to halt the move. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – A plan to create a temporary housing shelter for the homeless in northeast Ontario will be designed to make women, children, the disabled and seniors a priority, and all will be subject to a rigorous vetting procedure before they move onto the site.

That was the message delivered Thursday night during an informational meeting at Ontario City Hall. 

Representatives from the city, Community in Action – a local nonprofit – and Origins Faith Community Church discussed their plan to install 20 shed-like homes between Northeast Fourth Avenue and Northeast Third Avenue. The session was a packed crowd of local residents.

“We have priorities and the priorities are families with children. At least one child under the age of 18, or under 24 if the child happens to be disabled. And then elderly and disabled persons. Those are our priorities. Those would be given shelter first, and then we would just go down with the most need,” said Heather Echeveste, housing program manager for Community in Action.

The temporary housing shelter plan hit a snag when The Nichols Accounting Group, an accounting firm that operates adjacent to the area set for the tiny homes, sued the city, Origins Faith Community Church and Community in Action to halt the project.

The Nichols Accounting Group at 230 N. Oregon St. asserted in its lawsuit filed in Malheur County Circuit Court on Jan. 16 that the facility – designed to provide living accommodations during the winter months – would violate the city’s building and zoning ordinances. 

The encampment would “cause a sanitation and health issue,” the complaint said.

Doug Lamm, a certified public accountant with Nichols, said last week that safety of the firm’s employees was also an issue.

“The first thing we said to the city was about our safety going forward. To a person, if you go around and talk to our ladies, they are frightened,” said Lamm.

In its lawsuit, Nichols Accounting and a second company, North Oregon Properties LLC, said Ontario’s city code required every dwelling to have a kitchen sink and a bathroom with a shower or bathtub and that dwelling be connected to a water supply.

Nichols said using portable toilets could result in “improperly treated human sewage” and could cause “irreparable health issues,” for the firm’s employees and clients. 

The complaint also said the encampment violated the industrial zoning restrictions on the property. Nichols said residential uses are not allowed in such a zone.

“It seems like there is a lot of fear based on the assumption of all the things that could go wrong. Why can’t we instead operate under the assumption of the things that could go right?” said James Vogt, pastor at Origins Faith Community in response to the lawsuit.

Nichols also asked for a temporary injunction to stop the project and a hearing is scheduled on the matter Tuesday, Feb. 4, in Malheur County Circuit Court.

Community in Action executive director Barb Higinbotham said she was unsure what the impact of the lawsuit would be but plans for the tiny home encampment are moving ahead. 


Right now, she said, the project is delayed because Community in Action is awaiting final inspections by the county on the homes. 

Community in Action recently contracted with Conley’s Mini Barns to buy 20 small structures using a $150,000 state grant, according Higinbotham. The homes are 8-by-10 feet and basic, said Higinbotham. Portable toilets would service the site, she said.

Thursday night, Higinbotham emphasized the tiny home encampment will be a short-term solution.

“It’s really temporary shelter to keep people alive in the wintertime and out of the elements,” said Higinbotham.

The encampment program would close at the end of April. After that, officials plan to evaluate how well the plan worked and whether to seek additional funding. 

A one-page draft of rules and policies for the encampment was also available at the Thursday meeting. The policy outlined 15 rules and a list of penalties that could justify the removal of a resident.

The rules outline what hours the encampment is accessible to the public – 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. – and restrict weapons, drugs and alcohol. 

“No items are permitted that pose a threat to yourself or others,” the list says.

Other regulations include not smoking or vaping except in designated areas and a provision that chores – including a requirement that the portable toilets must be kept clean – would be required. 

A resident can be evicted for damaging property, any type of criminal behavior, and harassment of others. 

“Pornography or other materials that may be offensive to others must not be visible to anyone,” according to the sheet. There is also a process for residents to file grievance. 

Residents will also be required to create an “action plan.”

Higinbotham said an action plan pinpoints specific goals for a homeless person. She said for most homeless people the plan includes a transition from living on the street “or other places not meant for human habitation to more stable housing.”

“The plans for the residents are really tailored to the individual. We will create plans that make sense for that individual whatever the situation is,” said Higinbotham at the Thursday meeting.

A few people at the meeting spoke out against the plan while others asked questions.

Ingeborg Dickerson owns rental units at 67 N.W. Third Ave., just down the street from the proposed project site. She said her tenants have encountered issues with the city’s homeless population in the past. 

“My tenants’ cars have been broken into, and things have been stolen,” she said.

Friday, Dickerson said she was also curious where the residents of the encampment will go after the gate on the facility closes at the end of April.

Higinbotham said Community in Action was “well aware that April 30 is a hard deadline for us.”

“So, we will do everything in our power to get those people placed in a permanent situation,” said Higinbotham.

Riley Hill, Ontario mayor, asked Higinbotham if the tiny homes would accommodate several people.

“It is conceivable that we would have a mom and two kids in a unit, or whatever the family dynamic might be,” said Higinbotham.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said if a permanent housing solution can’t be found for residents of the encampment before April 30., they will go back onto the street.

“It is strictly winter housing,” he said.

The tiny houses would probably remain on the property, said Brown.

The number of homeless locally fluctuates. Brown said previously he believed there were about 200 homeless in Ontario. 

News tip? Contact Reporters Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or Joe Siess at [email protected].


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