The Roseburg Parks and Recreation Commission held a contentious debate about a proposal to install sanitary facilities in city parks at its meeting on Wednesday.
Members of local nonprofits and health organizations, commissioners, and about 10 Roseburg residents attended the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours.
The proposal made by Betsy Cunningham, board chair of homeless advocacy nonprofit Housing First Umpqua, aims to place sharps containers for hypodermic needles, garbage cans and portable toilets at 11 city locations — of which nine are city parks.
Its goal is to limit human waste and other materials from polluting parks and waterways — an ongoing issue with Roseburg’s large homeless population along the South Umpqua River.
Cunningham and other supporters of the proposal, including representatives of the United Community Action Network, Douglas Public Health Network, the Dream Center’s warming center and the Homeless Transitions Action Group, said the facilities would make public spaces cleaner and help prevent the spread of disease.
Residents who opposed the proposal said they feel unsafe in parks because of unsheltered occupants, adding that installing the facilities would promote public camping.
“The delusion people are under that it enables people to be homeless is really one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard people raise,” Cunningham said. “People don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be homeless because they’re going to give me a toilet and trash can.’ What it enables people to do is actually go to the bathroom where people need to be going to the bathroom.”
The commission unanimously passed a motion asking city staff to work with the HIV Alliance to identify additional public spaces where sharps containers and garbage cans could be placed. The HIV Alliance currently manages one sharps container at Micelli Park and one at the Roseburg duck pond. Additional containers would be managed by the group, said Executive Director Renee Yandel.
The commission declined to make a motion on installing portable toilets, despite UCAN committing to cover the proposal’s costs, which are estimated at less than $50,000.
Bob Grubbs, a parks commissioner, Roseburg Police Chief Gary Klopfenstein and Public Works Director Nikki Messenger said putting permanently unlocked portable toilets in public parks sends a mixed message about when parks are open.
“I’m not sure if I could ever get to a spot where I would be behind a movement to put a port-a-potty in a park,” Grubbs said. “It’s kind of like we’re setting up a campground in a way.”
City parks are open one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset, and public bathrooms are locked when the parks close, according to city policy.
While unsheltered people break city rules by sleeping in parks, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that the government cannot prevent or ticket people for sleeping on public property when there are insufficient unrestricted shelter beds — those without conditions to entry such as attending a religious service. In Roseburg, there are no unrestricted shelter beds.
At the meeting, Cunningham suggested Roseburg might be vulnerable to lawsuits claiming it is violating the court’s ruling because the city recently restarted its camp cleanups.
Klopfenstein and Parks Program Manager Kris Ammerman doubted whether unsheltered people would use the sanitary facilities if they were installed, while residents denied people would use them.
“We have a really hard time thinking that an outhouse put within 100 yards of where their camp is (would work) when they’re defecating in their camp,” Klopfenstein said.
City Councilor Ashley Hicks, who is not part of the parks commission but is an outspoken critic of the proposal and live streamed the meeting, said three portable toilets downtown aren’t well-maintained and often lack toilet paper.
Wayne Ellsworth, an HTAG facilitator, said in an interview after the meeting that people are using existing portable toilets and sharps containers.
“The reason why it doesn’t have any toilet paper is that they’re using the toilet paper,” Ellsworth said. He added he recently called UCAN Executive Director Mike Fieldman and said one of the toilets needed to be emptied because it was full.
He said more than 24,000 needles have been collected from Roseburg’s two sharps containers since the beginning of June, showing people are using them.
“Every needle that goes in a sharps container is a win,” said Commissioner Diana Wales after a resident said she still finds loose needles at parks with sharps containers.
Residents at the meeting often tried to pivot the conversation away from the proposal to larger questions about how to solve the homeless crisis.
“I don’t know how long this problem has been going on, but we need to make progress,” said Ryan Finlay, a resident at the meeting. “This doesn’t put a roof over anyone’s head. What can be done to get a parking lot somewhere, the beginning of a temporary shelter, anybody to step up to do that.”
Ellsworth encouraged people objecting to the proposal to attend meetings of groups such as HTAG. He pointed to work helping to establish mobile crisis intervention and a sobering center in Roseburg. He added groups are working to establish a homeless camp on private property.
“There are a lot of big-picture things going on right now,” Ellsworth said. “When it comes to these other initiatives, it is to be helpful.”
“When it comes to the people that are homeless in Douglas County, but specifically Roseburg, you would see that a majority of them have been living in Roseburg for over three years,” he said, referring to data in a recent housing needs analysis commissioned by the city. “These people are our people, and we need to be able to take care of our people.”