A crew member removes debris from an abandon homeless camp. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

ONTARIO – Ontario officials realize they have a homeless problem on their hands but don’t know how to solve it.

They are not alone. 

Across the country the homeless issue is vexing cities big and small and while overall numbers over an eight-year period have dropped, the homeless challenge lingers. 

In January 2018, nearly 553,000 people were homeless on a single night in the U.S., with nearly two-thirds of them in emergency shelters or transitional housing program, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

California, New York, Hawaii and Oregon continue to report high rates of homelessness. In Oregon, 35 people per 1,000 experience homelessness, according to federal data.

The local homeless situation was brought into sharp focus last week when the city of Ontario – in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation – moved to close a homeless camp near the Snake River north of the city’s water treatment plant in east Ontario.

The operation was announced a week ahead of time to give the homeless campers warning. The sweep and clear effort was triggered by two break-ins at a water well structure and worries that the city’s water could be contaminated. 

“That was kind of what started our concern,” said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager. 

Safety also prompted the operation, he said.

“Our employees were afraid to go down there,” said Brown.

Brown said the Ontario City Council didn’t authorize the sweep and clear effort but was informed about it.

“It wasn’t something that was discussed at a council meeting. It was just us managing our own properties and working with ODOT,” said Brown.

Brown estimated about 60 homeless people congregated in the area along the river near the Northeast 16th Street Bridge. The bridge itself and property just around it is under state jurisdiction. 

He said if people move back later, “we are not necessarily going to go back in there and kick them out,” but Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero said his department would strive to keep the area clear.

“My cops are going to be down there regularly, trespassing people,” Romero said.

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Brown said the city will adopt a “wait and see” attitude regarding trespassing in the area.

“The big determinate is the waste. If we see drug paraphernalia or human waste right against the river or there are other break-ins to our water wells, those will be the real determinates,” said Brown. 

Brown conceded the sweep operation won’t solve the local homeless problem.

“We need a long-term solution. I’ve talked to the council about this and we are all in agreement there needs to be a long-term solution,” he said.

City Councilor Dan Capron said the homeless challenge seems to defy an answer right now.

“I wish we could take everyone and house them and fix them and get them jobs. I wish it was that easy,” said Capron. 

Councilor Norm Crume said he’s also frustrated because there appears to be no easy solution.

“I have never heard anyone come up with an answer as to how to deal with it. I just don’t have any answers but my ears are open,” said Crume.

Another obstacle, local officials said, is the lack of housing in Ontario for displaced people.

Earlier this year, plans to create a homeless shelter in Ontario fell through, said Brown. The city had planned to convert the old public works building on North Oregon Street into a day shelter for the homeless, then lease the facility to Community in Action, a non-profit that furnishes services to low-income residents. 

The effort, though, fell through.

“The city council was ready to approve but it was kiboshed from a couple of neighbors. I don’t know if we can totally blame the neighbors. Community in Action looked at the paperwork involved and it was onerous so they said they were not ready to bite this off,” said Brown.

Brown said a new coalition – dubbed the Malheur Housing United Task Force – formed in August to tackle the homeless challenge.

One of the coalition’s major goals, he said, is to find affordable housing for displaced people.

Capron said community support is essential.

“There is a public outcry but what is the public doing? Everyone wants the city to fix it and not chase them off so what are we supposed to do?” said Capron.

Councilor Freddy Rodriguez said part of the solution involves finding work for displaced people.

“We can’t just be there and hand them a pamphlet and a few phone numbers. We need to find avenues to where we can place homeless individuals on the way to rehabilitation through work,” said Rodriguez. 

News tip? Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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