Barb Higinbotham, Community in Action executive director, Heather Echeveste, Community in Action member, and Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, listen to community feedback about the winter shelter program. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO - Ontario's “tiny homes” project intended to provide housing for the homeless last winter saw pushback from neighbors at a public feedback session held on Wednesday, June 17, by the city of Ontario and Community in Action.

Neighbors of the tiny homes, which were located on Northeast Third Avenue and Fourth Avenues on the east side of North Oregon Street, complained of homeless individuals drinking alcohol, loitering and leaving trash while the homes were up for a 29-day period from April 2-30.

The forum was held at the Four Rivers Cultural Center and around 10 people attended, not including the city manager and Community in Action representatives.

Bob Kemble, CEO of the Nichols Accounting Group, said there were also instances of homeless individuals asking employees for money.

“And then I know of another instance where there was a time where one of the female employees did not feel safe due to communication that she couldn't understand, but it was directed towards her as she was approaching her vehicle in the parking lot,” said Kemble.

The Nichols Accounting Group has had problems with the shelters since the city first announced the project’s location, which is across the street from the firm.

The city started working on the project, which was funded by a grant for emergency transitional shelter housing from the state, with Community in Action and Origins Faith Community Church in November 2019, said Ontario City Manager Adam Brown.

Origins later pulled out of the project because it was “too demanding for their schedules,” said Barb Higinbotham, Community in Action executive director.

In January, Nichols Accounting sued the city, Origins and Community in Action for allegedly violating the city’s building and zoning code. However, Malheur County Circuit Judge Lung Hung denied the firm’s request for a temporary injunction on Feb. 4, and the project moved forward.

Kemble said he still doesn’t like “where it’s at,” it was a “nuisance” and “in the wrong place,” but that he understands that “these people need help.”

“It was just about as I thought it would be — a real nuisance,” said Kemble.

Mary Butler said she lives across the street from the tiny homes, and when asked by Brown at the forum whether she felt the project went better, worse or how she expected it to be, she said, “It wasn't as messy as I expected it to be, but other than that, it was kind of how I expected.”

“They did spend a lot of time across the street at Nichols (Accounting Group) drinking their alcohol,” said Butler. “And I noticed it wasn't just necessarily the people that were in the shelter, but it drew a lot of the other homeless. That seemed to be like a gathering point.”

Heather Echeveste, a member of Community in Action, said at the forum that the shelters had “24-hour coverage every day” by volunteers, and there were “no calls due to criminal behavior.”

Throughout the period, law enforcement had to conduct several welfare checks on one individual who was unable to keep in contact with his mom and there was one 9-1-1 call due to a backpack left on the property “of a nearby business,” but “no crimes were committed at or near the shelter site,” Echeveste said.

Cheri Dodson, a Community in Action volunteer, said she and her husband were homeless “up until July of last year,” and the organization helped them get permanent housing. Dodson said it shouldn’t matter whose “backyard” the shelters are in.

“Everybody's going to say, ‘Oh, not my neighborhood, not my neighborhood. Oh, I don't want to see the day shelter on the main street,’” said Dodson. “Why? Why is this community so afraid to realize 95% of the people in this town are one paycheck away from losing their own homes?”

Dodson said the individuals at the homeless shelter were “grateful and respectful,” and she recounted one homeless man who cried when she gave him a six-pack of socks.

She said many neighbors, rather than offering to help, “stood from afar, and they cast judgment.”

“Maybe people need to start looking at how to help instead of how to hinder,” said Dodson.

Higinbotham said her agency served 39 individuals and families in the 16 shelter units. The project then helped eight families move into permanent supportive housing, two families move into transitional housing, two individuals find jobs, two individuals keep their jobs, five veterans get services, six families shelter in hotel rooms.

The shelter also helped a homeless youth who “had been jumping the fence at night because he was afraid to be on the streets alone” reconnect with his family in Arkansas, said Echeveste. The agency connected him with a youth advocate, who arranged for him to return home. He is now living with his family in Arkansas.

“You know, what more could you ask for out of that?” said Echeveste.

Only one individual who was sheltered left without a working plan, which was by choice to return to the streets.

Higinbotham said they had wanted to extend the project for 30 days, but it was denied by the Ontario City Council. According to last year’s point-in-time count, she said, there were 377 homeless individuals in Ontario, but the year before, there were 155.

“So I just want to kind of bring us back to the reality of our issue,” said Higinbotham. “We have a large homeless population.”

It is unclear whether or not the tiny homes will return next winter, but Brown said they are encouraging anyone who does not support the location or had problems with it to let them know “so that wherever we plan on moving it, we could make it as successful as possible.”

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected]

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