Commissioners Attack Grants Pass Mayor For Trying To Get Homeless Funds

“It could be a political setup you know.” That’s what Josephine County Commission Chair Herman Baertschiger said about criticism of their refusal to take steps to get state funding for homelessness during a Legal Council meeting April 18.

In one of her first acts in office, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed three executive orders addressing homelessness in the state and called on state lawmakers to fund them. They came up with two bills, totaling $200 million to help with affordable housing and emergency homelessness response. Counties across Oregon with the biggest problems were designated to receive funds from these bills. Other counties were invited to apply for funding if commissioners decided homelessness was a big enough problem to declare it an emergency in their counties.

Even though Grants Pass city parks have a mushrooming population of homeless and increasing complaints about drug activity and trash, people sleeping in cars, rickety RVs on neighborhood streets and countless people squatting on public and private land out in remote areas, Josephine County Commissioners did not see the problem as an emergency. They gave several reasons for this: the homeless are a city problem, this has been going on a long time so it isn’t an emergency and the fine print in the governor’s document says cities can declare their own emergency and get money. They also complained that declaring an emergency siphoned power away from the Board and the Governor’s plan is a big waste of money because homelessness is unsolvable.

In addition, Commissioners stubbornly cling to their interpretation of the Governor’s requirements to get the grant, saying if Grants Pass and Cave Junction want the money they can declare their own emergencies in order to get the money. This is not the case, the mayors of Grants Pass and Cave Junction say. They did declare emergencies but were told the county had to take the lead in order to qualify for funding.

So, Baertschiger speculated those blaming Commissioners for not getting desperately needed funding to help get the homeless out of Grants Pass parks were just setting the Commission up to look bad.

With that mindset, Baertschiger opened the City/County meeting April 25 with a scathing takedown of Grants Pass Mayor Sarah Bristol for sending a letter to the governor saying the county declined to declare a state of emergency.

“I think this was very unappropriate where you put in here that the Board of County Commissioners has declined to declare a state of emergency, has declined to express support for our local emergency declaration, and has declined to move our request to the state. You know, that’s not fair. It’s not fair. You come in here and ask for money, we ask you what makes this emergency. Crickets. Then we ask you for a plan on how you’re going to deal with it if you get the money. Crickets. But (raising voice)  yet you want us to declare a state of emergency, and then you know when we did the warming shelter that’s the one thing that clued me, you say we have 280 unsheltered people in Josephine County but yet only 40 or 50 show up at the warming center. That means the other 210 are still out unsheltered…who….they don’t think it’s an emergency, why should we think it’s an emergency? And when you declare a state of emergency a lot of things can get suspended, I mean you don’t have to look back too far, just look at COVID and all the things that happened under that state of emergency. You get to bypass the legislature, get to bypass the statutes. It’s very complicated,” said Baertschiger.

“I don’t see that on the agenda,” said Grants Pass City Manager Aaron Cubic.

“I put it on the agenda cause I get to change it around,” said Baertschiger to chuckles from those present.

“Remind me of the part where you DIDN”T decline to help us,” said Bristol.

“Didn’t decline?” asked Baertschiger.

“You’re saying it was inappropriate to say you declined…remind me where that’s untrue,” said Bristol.

“If you woulda produced a plan or why you wanted it….” said Baertschiger.

“I didn’t even finish asking the question. I told you to keep an eye out for my letter that was coming and you turned me down on the spot. You didn’t even consider….” said Bristol

Baertschiger interrupts, saying “I asked you what…..”

DeYoung interrupts with, “One of the things we brought up Mayor is the fact that the governor’s executive order specifically says the people who were not in her original matrix, cities and counties, could apply for the money. It didn’t say, it didn’t say – you got a directive I think from her staff that said no, you have to do it through the county. That’s not what her executive order said and you can challenge that all you want.”

“We did declare an emergency, as did the city of Cave Junction and the county Commissioners did not, so I’m sorry if you feel hurt by that….” said Bristol.

Baertschiger yells back, “I don’t feel hurt. I just wonder why you get to throw rocks and come right back here and say, ‘oh we need to work together on all this.’ That’s not how things work. Ok?

Bristol tries to speak but Baertschiger interrupts, “And we asked some questions of why you wanted to declare an emergency, what constitutes an emergency and where’s the plan? And nothing. You just want money and I don’t know about you but when I went through Government 101 they taught me that government has no money except for what it takes from the people so I’m a little bit concerned about how I appropriate funds without plans.”

Bristol tries to reply but Baertschiger cuts her off.

“Ok. We’ll move n from this agenda now….” Said Baertschiger.

They went on to talk about airport development, giving all their attention to Grants Pass City Council President Valarie Lovelace, ignoring Bristol.

DeYoung, addressing Lovelace said, “on your homeless issue, Councilman Ryker and I went out to take a look at that other side of Spaulding…there’s a big open field that goes up the mountain. I think if you were to develop that into your homeless camp you’d be able to get a grant or a gift.”

Baertschiger said even if the city developed a homeless camp out there “you can’t insist they go there.”

Bristol spoke up, “well, if we got the injunction lifted we could insist they not be in our parks which is important to our citizens who are also YOUR citizens.”

DeYoung asked “Where do you stand on the injunction? Are you appealing to the whole 9th Circuit?”

“Yep,” said Bristol. Cubic said the request is still being considered.

“What kind of vagrancy laws do you have in the city?” asked Baertschiger.

“Vagrancy? I’m not sure that’s related,” said Cubic.

DeYoung added “We looked at that when I was on the city council and there is no such thing as vagrancy or loitering or any of that. It’s all gone. We looked at it when we were looking at the panhandling side of it.”

“So even if we create a homeless center it doesn’t resolve the park problem,” said Commissioner John West.

“The reason we have a park problem is we need a low barrier shelter. If they don’t have any place to go we have to allow them to sleep in public places. That’s why we need a low barrier shelter,” said Bristol.

Baertschiger said the low attendance in the warming shelters should be a clue that a permanent shelter would have low attendance as well.

“The warming shelter was very well attended but those with a good tent decided to stay because the warming shelter is only open a few days and they have their places set up. People who did come were those without a car or a tent,” Bristol said.

DeYoung suggested the city make the section of Riverside Park near the Caveman Bridge a permanent camp for the homeless.

“You don’t like it cause it’s right in town but you could put up a sight-obscuring fence,” he said.

Bristol said there are legal reasons the city can’t open that section of the park for a homeless camp that has to be discussed in an executive session. She also said dedicating a portion of the park as a campground could make it a situation where we always have to have that be a campground.

DeYoung shouted back “It is now! And you’re not getting rid of it!”

“I’m trying to deal with it and we’ve asked you for cooperation…”

Baertschiger shouts back “Oh, don’t blame us and you know what? I don’t even know if you would’ve gotten any money out of it either!”

“We’d never know unless we asked,” said Bristol.

West brought up HB 3501, the homeless anti-harassment bill that has since been yanked from committee. “We’re givin’ them more rights than the rest of us,” he said.

Baertschiger stopped the conversation and went back to discussing the airport. Lovelace was there to talk about how airport improvements help the county’s economy. However, homelessness was never far from the conversation. Lovelace said social services is putting together a plan if more money for dealing with the homeless comes down. She tried to explain that it’s important for the city and county to have a relationship because in many cases the money comes down through counties.

Baertschiger, speaking much more softly to Lovelace than Bristol, said it’s frustrating that people think money will solve the homeless problem when the courts can no longer hold people on drug charges. Lovelace said she would really like to see a navigation center where homeless people can go and make contact with all the services they need. DeYoung kept rallying for a permanent campground in Riverside Park’s extension under the bridge, Baertschiger got into the history of mental health treatment in Oregon, West chimed in by saying giving the homeless a place to live doesn’t solve the problem, then Baertschiger circled back around to his favorite homeless proclamation, “it’s just a problem I don’t understand.”

Mayor Bristol reentered the conversation:

“I would say keep in mind too that there’s two different problems. One is actually solving homelessness for the people, or at least the people who want to get out of homelessness or who can out. The other issue is getting people out of our parks so we literally have to provide another place for them to be. We can’t make them go there, right, at least initially, so we know from the shelters we have there’s a number of people who will go to a shelter. Every night we have it open that’s 50 people who aren’t breaking into cars or trashing things inappropriately, so it’s keeping those people out of trouble. And it’s helping them, so when we get to the point where we can overturn the injunction somehow and I don’t have the immediate solution for how that would happen, but the injunction is theoretically a temporary agreement, then at some point we can tell people get out of the park. We can say ‘you can go to the shelter right?’ Or you’re going to be arrested, cited, or whatever the next step is going to be, but you’re not allowed in our park.’ and that’s where I’d like to get us, but we can’t ever get to that place until we have the other place for them to go. And so solving homelessness or getting people off drugs is related but separate problem from just getting people out of the parks.”

“I recognize that,” said Baertschiger.

Lovelace pointed out that we do have an informal navigation center at Baker Park where various social service agencies go to offer help.

“Is it working? Do you have numbers? Somebody’s got to measure if it’s working,” said Baertschiger.

DeYoung grumbled about throwing money at an unsolvable problem. Bristol pointed out the city isn’t spending any money at Baker Park because help is coming from non-profits and social services. DeYoung said the homeless are transients and can go anywhere they want so they should all be going to Medford because “that’s where the services are.” He complained that people aren’t holding events in city parks anymore because of the homeless and their trash and people’s overall perception of Grants Pass is of homeless camps and “needles all over the park.”

“Remember when we came here and asked for help to sign the emergency declaration so that we could ask the state for money to help?” asked Bristol.

DeYoung shouted to Bristol, “We’re not going to sign the declaration of emergency because I don’t think you understand what that means! And it says right in there that you can do it on your own.”

“And we did what they told us,” Bristol said.

“Who’s they?” asked DeYoung.

“Oregon Emergency Management,” injected Cubic.

“Did you call the governor and say you know they’re not following your process?” asked DeYoung.

“The governor’s process was submitted to OEM,” said Cubic.

“We did try on our own like you said and so did the city of Cave Junction and we got disqualified because we didn’t go through the county,” said Bristol.

“Your argument is with the state, not us,” said DeYoung.