Local government

City eyes vacant lot on Lagoon Drive as possible homeless camp site

VALE – Mayor Tom Vialpando wants to be prepared when it comes to the homeless.

That’s why he believes a stretch of open ground on Lagoon Drive east of town would be a good site for a homeless bivouac.

He said he has a blueprint already to provide garbage service, water and portable toilets for the city-owned site

The only problem is the city doesn’t have the money for such a project.

“We have less than 700 homes we can tax on. We have no line item for the homeless,” said Vialpando.

The Vale City Council has taken no action yet on the idea for a designated site for the homeless but the idea is “under advisement” said Vialpando.  

Vialpando briefed the council on the homeless site proposal in June.

The dilemma facing the city isn’t much different than what other officials across the state confront.

Last summer the county and the city councils of Nyssa, Ontario and Vale passed ordinances to regulate camping on public property within city limits. The new ordinances were ratified to align with a 2021 state law.

That law, House Bill 3115, can trace its roots to a 2019 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that government cannot criminalize specific conduct that is unavoidable, such as lying, sitting or sleeping on the streets. The court held that to punish individuals for such behavior was unconstitutional.

When the Ontario City Council authorized its ordinance regulating camping it also designated an area where the homeless could congregate. Vale’s ordinance allowed camping between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. but prohibited camping within any public right-of-way, within 500 feet of a school and within 25 feet of a public entrance to a business.

Vale did not initially designate an area where homeless could go as Ontario did. However, Vialpando said city leaders began to work on a plan to do so after the city council passed the ordinance.

The site on Lagoon Drive, which is owned by the city, seemed to be the best place for a homeless camp, said Vialpando.

The site is key, he said, because Oregon law stipulates officials cannot make a homeless person move from a site unless it falls under the new ordinance regarding public property if there is no other option.

Vale doesn’t face a serious homeless challenge yet, said Todd Fuller, Vale city manager

  but there are isolated problems where people are camped out in cars, trailers or RVs in areas that are not public property.

“I’ve had a few people tell me they’ve woken up in the morning with people parked in front of their homes. I’ve had businesses complain about people parking on the side of the road by their businesses,” he said.

Vialpando said a designated site will benefit residents and the unhoused.

“What we want to do is to be able to look at a spot where if they are parked in front of someone’s house and police can come and say, hey, we have a place for you to go,” said Vialpando.

A designated site for the homeless would remove the nuisance complaints and, under Vialpando’s vision, provide a safe and clean area for the unhoused.

“We want to do something that will be right for everyone,” Vialpando said. “The food pantry would go out there twice a week and there will be a safety lane for emergency services to go through.”

He said the city wanted to plan for such a location instead of scrambling at the last minute to find a place for the unhoused.

“This is what we have learned by collaborating with other cities through the mayors association,” he said.

Fuller said the city looked at “multiple spaces and we kind of settled on that as being not too far out of town.”

Vale Councilor Monty Bixby said he is on the fence regarding whether the site is a good idea.

The prospect of using the empty lot for the homeless sparked feedback from some residents, he said.

“We have had all kind of people come into the (city) council meeting and give us their concerns about it. We are trying to figure out, seeing what other towns are doing and listening to the concerns of the citizens of Vale. We will try to do what’s best for the town,” he said.

Vialpando said complaints the city council received about the proposed site came from county, and not city, residents.

“We’ve had concerned citizens and businesses on both sides of the coin come to us as the council and we are weighing their concerns before we make any decision,” he said.

Until there is a stable funding source from an outside source – such as the state – complaints about the unhoused living in vehicles near area homes or on local streets will continue, he said.

In March, Gov. Tina Kotek signed a $200 million funding package to address the homeless crisis in Oregon and more recently her office announced it planned to send $26 million in funds to 26 rural counites, including Malheur, to address homelessness.

Malheur and Harney counties, according to the governor’s office, will receive $1.3 million to rehouse at least 34 households.

Vialpando said Vale has not seen any state funding to address homelessness.

“We can’t appropriately react to homelessness with no money,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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