These tiny homes are part of a project in Ontario to help unhoused people. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – The teams at Community in Action and Origins Faith Community were discouraged with the city’s decision in April to shut down the tiny home shelters for unhoused people.

They remained determined to find a solution that would allow the 16 families to keep a roof over their heads. 

That solution arrived May 12 from Salem in the form of legislation – House Bill 2006 – which “requires local governments to allow siting of qualifying emergency shelters by qualifying entities notwithstanding land use laws and regulations.” 

In short, it means that the city of Ontario is now required to allow the shelter to stay open. 

Dan Cummings, city community development director, confirmed that he had approved a special permit for the shelter site. 

This time, the process was entirely administrative, taking place without the involvement of the Ontario City Council or the public.

“Shelters are no longer a land use decision,” explained Ariel Nelson, a lobbyist with the League of Oregon Cities who works on housing issues. She said that the land use process could sometimes move very slowly due to citizens opposing initiatives like shelters and affordable housing.  

“(Now), it’s much more of an administrative decision, that if this shelter meets the parameters in the bill, then it’s approved,” Nelson said. 

The legislation providing relief in Ontario specifies that a shelter must be for an emergency – providing temporary, rather than permanent, living space for unhoused people. The new law establishes how long the shelter can be closed, for example during an off-season, before it loses eligibility for the advantages conferred by the bill. 

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said that he’d sat in on a conference call with Nelson that made it clear Ontario had no options for blocking the shelter.

“If there was something that gave them any type of hole, we probably would’ve brought it to the (council) meeting, but it was pretty clear from that conference call that the city didn’t have any ground to reject it,” Brown said. 

Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action, said that her team was still working to determine how long the shelter would operate this year. The shelter was originally envisioned as a temporary winter installation, and the homes are not yet equipped with air conditioning and other summer adaptations. 

The shelter also has been relying on portable outhouses for bathroom facilities, which Ingeborg Dickerson, who owns an apartment complex adjoining the shelter, called “just not sanitary.” 

Dickerson had previously been critical of the shelter’s location and the behavior of its occupants, claiming in a letter to the city council that one man had “pulled a knife” on a tenant of hers. However, in a recent interview with the Enterprise, she said that these days, the shelter has been calm. 

“I think when I talked to the police and the mayor and so on, (Community in Action) tightened the ropes a little bit and they made sure my tenants wouldn’t be inconvenienced,” Dickerson said. 

Priscilla Garcia, housing programs manager at Community in Action, said that all of the shelter’s tenants were “very happy and excited” when they heard that the shelter would stay open.

But that doesn’t mean they’re getting complacent. 

“Everyone’s still actively working on their case plan, transitioning plan. We’re hoping a lot more housing will open up due to the (eviction) moratorium ending,” Garcia said. 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

PRIOR COVERAGE:

Malheur County's homeless rate nearly doubles, survey finds

Coalition forms to house Malheur County's homeless

Ontario homeless shelter project receives pushback at community forum

Homeless dilemma lingers for county but planned revival of tiny home project in Ontario may help the displaced

Malheur County woman finds hope for the future through tiny home project

Neighbors' concerns dog homeless project in Ontario

Ontario City Council rejects plea to keep tiny homes open past May

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