The topic of homelessness dominated the Roseburg City Council regular meeting Monday.

Five of the eight people who addressed the council during the audience-participation period urged the city to act on the problem, which they said is getting worse.

Some people described their frustrations as property owners whose backyards have become camping grounds for unsheltered people. The speakers asked the city to involve citizens more in implementing solutions for both unsheltered people and homeowners affected by the side effects of homelessness. They also suggested solutions. Councilors welcomed the input and voiced their commitment to working on the problem.

“This is something that’s important to all of us,” City Councilor Andrea Zielinski said. “I know this one of the biggest issues we’re facing right now. It’s that balance of human compassion because these people are living on the streets, and then also the reality is people don’t feel safe if there are homeless people on the riverbanks.”

Patricia Kolb teared up as she offered councilors her perspective as a formerly homeless person.

“It’s very very depressing, very demeaning,” Kolb said. “It is hopeless. It is trying to find someplace to go to the bathroom. Trying to find someplace to get clean clothes. It’s trying to find a shred of dignity from anyone, compassion from anyone.”

Kolb said the city could place portable toilets and trash cans in areas where people camp to help prevent human waste and other trash from getting into the river — a solution many other cities in Oregon have implemented.

“It wouldn’t eliminate the problem, but it sure would help,” Kolb said. “If you don’t have a phone number or an address or clean clothes or a toothbrush to brush your teeth with, to then go find a job and lift yourself up, how are you going to do that?”

Betsy Cunningham echoed Kolb’s call for public restrooms. She also told councilors about Housing First Umpqua — a grassroots advocacy group centered around the idea that homelessness is best addressed by first securing permanent housing for unsheltered people. Cunningham said she would provide councilors with research showing the success of the housing first model.

“Housing First Umpqua is going to work on individual advocacies and focus on helping people navigate the (housing) system,” Cunningham said. “But the other thing is the public policies that prevent finding a solution to homelessness.”

Cunningham said Housing First Umpqua had its first public meeting on Monday. She said they discussed their commitment to advocating for trash cans, toilets and containers for needles along the river where unsheltered people camp.

At the end of the public comment period, Mayor Larry Rich asked councilors if they would be interested in exploring the formation of a task force to address homeless issues.

“Do we want to have a city task force? I realize we’re not going to have a commission, but just a task force as a sounding block for people to call and say, ‘Hey, what can you do? What’s legal? What’s not legal?’” Rich said.

After getting approval from the City Council, Rich said he would meet with city staff to discuss the task force.

The council also directed city staff not to pursue help from state agencies to manage the South Umpqua River.

City Councilor Ashley Hicks recently filed a complaint to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality describing trash, human waste and other pollutants getting into the river from homeless camps.

DEQ, the Oregon Department of State Lands and a representative from Gov. Kate Brown’s office reached out to the city after Hicks’ complaint.

City staff determined that in order for the state to help manage the river, the Department of State Lands must acquire jurisdiction of the section owned by the city. City Manager Lance Colley told City Council the process would be arduous, costly and may not yield any benefits to riverfront property owners. If the state took jurisdiction of the river, riverfront property owners might have to give up land up to the high water mark to the state.

City Council voted 6-1 to direct city staff not to continue conversations with state agencies regarding the matter. Hicks voted against the motion. City Councilor Alison Eggers was not in attendance.

“I would like you to contact the agencies involved — I think there’s at least three of them — and tell them that it’s not the city’s wishes, not the City Council’s wishes, there’s never been an agenda item on it,” said City Council President Tom Ryan.

Last week, city officials said Hicks may have broken city rules by filing a complaint with DEQ if she made the complaint in a city council capacity. Hicks said at the meeting she made the complaint as a private citizen, not a city councilor. Colley said the state agencies thought Hicks made the complaint under the direction of the council, however.

Later in the meeting, the City Council also voted to authorize city staff to apply for a Historic Revitalization Subgrant Program grant from the National Parks Service. If the city’s application is selected, Roseburg would receive $750,000 for rehabilitation on the Willis House, facade improvements in the downtown district, street lighting and art integration projects.

Additionally, the City Council voted to allocate $25,000 in matching funds to support the construction of electric vehicle charging stations at four locations in Roseburg. The city recently acquired a grant from Pacific Power for the project.

Max Egener can be reached at megener@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4217. Or follow him on Twitter @maxegener.

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City Reporter

Max Egener is the city reporter for The News-Review. He has a master's degree from the University of Oregon, and is an avid skier and backpacker.

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