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Members of local nonprofits and health organizations, commissioners and about 10 Roseburg residents attended the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Wednesday.

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.”

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.

(5) comments

whizbang

"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." \

Rise722

Anyone who wants to help these "helpless" people should simply invite a few to stay in their homes. Problem solved.

BetsyC

I think you illustrate the points in my post. What have you don'e to help the situation?

BetsyC

Great story! But I guess I am a bit biased. I think the meeting really revealed how uninformed many of the regular citizens are about the homeless issue and what is currently being worked on in the community to address their concerns and the bigger picture. Some seem uninterested in dealing with facts and just want the homeless gone out of their sight. I say this because you did not have people at meetings until the homeless started moving into their neighborhoods. They blissfully ignored the fact that we have homeless living on our waterway for over 20 years, with maybe the exception of Councilwoman Hicks. It is not for the lack of some of us trying. I spend lots of time on social media trying to provide people accurate information, yet there is a lot of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias going on. Instead of listening to the experts about the various components and challenges and how they can be addressed, folks instead turn to "news" stories, like Seattle is Dying to confirm their uneducated opinions and beliefs about the causes of homelessness and the solutions. Although we all have our bias, most who have been involved in this issue for a while try to base our opinions on facts and evidence, while attempting to avoid get too focused on the emotions such debates evoke. I get why people are angry but they are unwilling to even entertain a possible cost effective solution to the sanitation problem and instead want us to increase law enforcement, which will costs the taxpayer more money and will not get the results they want; maybe it will in the short term, but the folks will be back. I think we need to know exactly what this policing the homeless is costing us. This includes things like the settlement the city made because the police confiscated a person’s belongs and threw them away in violation of state law. Now that they are ticketing people for littering, which is a misdemeanor under state law, it surely will end up more than the cost of just providing toilets. The proposal was not even asking the city to pay for any of it. Maybe worse yet, they will continue to just ignore the fact that people use out riverbanks as the default toilet for those living outside.

OregonHusker

Betsy, that's because the experts either lie or are horribly naive. They want us to believe the homeless are just people down on their luck and victims of a bad economy. The reality is the vast majority of them are drug using criminals. The number of syringes retrieved from the SHARP container indicates that and that total is only a fraction as syringes can be found all over the city in drains, ditches and even rooftops of local businesses. No doubt you will retort that I am one of those people with biases. I, too, am an expert as I have worked in law enforcment for years. Both in Roseburg and Eugene. Chief Klopfenstein stated putting toilets in the parks would send the wrong message. The reality is these people deficate wherever is readily available because they spend most of their day in a haze fueled by drugs. They couldn't care less where they potty except in those times between highs. Of course, during that time most only care about getting money to fuel their habit and they "work" by picking up cans or stealing from people's yards or vehicles. It's terrific that others are uneducated and biased in your opinion. I suggest you put away your rose colored glasses and observe these people close up. BTW, Seattle Is Dying is a terrific documentary and gives a terriic depiction of the real homeless people of this generation. I suggest others watch it as it will cement their bias against the criminals that live in our neighborhoods. Be careful out there, folks. The problem is getting worse and crime is going up.

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