The Hermiston City Council offered cautious support Monday night for plans to develop a homeless shelter in Hermiston.
Board members for Stepping Stones, a local group who wants to model the shelter after a similar program in Walla Walla, asked the city for financial support for the project during a work session prior to the council meeting.
The council meeting was held at the Eastern Oregon Trade & Event Center with few, if any, public citizens in attendance due to the social distancing guidelines. The meeting was streamed live on YouTube with the ability for citizens to call in with questions.
Stepping Stones board member Cathy Lloyd said the Hermiston Warming Station, which is open during the winter months, serves a needed purpose, but is not enough.
“The warming station closes down on March 1,” she said. “We get some very cold nights in March and April. It just isn’t sufficient. We can do better.”
The group is asking the city to provide up to $85,000 in initial start-up costs with a $40,000 annual contribution for operating costs.
The shelter would be located on property owned by the Agape House and would consist of small insulated huts with no electricity or plumbing, but space for an individual to sleep. Also, individuals would have to leave their huts during the day.
Lloyd said Stepping Stones would be more than just a place to sleep. It would also include a program aimed at giving individuals the skills needed to become independent.
“It’s not meant to be so comfortable that people will want to live there forever,” she told the council. “It’s a temporary, emergency shelter.”
The initial plan calls for a security guard to be on site throughout the night with a part-time site manager.
Lloyd said since the program in Walla Walla – the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless – began in 2015, 40 homeless people have found permanent homes.
“That’s the exciting part to me,” said Lloyd. “These people are learning the skills to become self-reliant.”
Stepping Stones wants to build 25 huts at a cost of $1,200 per hut. Walla Walla has 31 huts and is currently building five more.
Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann said people in Hermiston are empathetic about the homeless in town, but wanted more information before the city makes a significant financial commitment.
“We have to determine if it’s important enough to the community for the city to take money from a current program and put it into a homeless shelter,” he said.
There was concern among some on the council that a shelter could serve as a magnet for the homeless outside of the Hermiston area.
Lloyd said the insistence that individuals take part in a program to develop life skills would weed out those who are just looking for a free place to stay.
Cathy Putnam, interim director of the Agape House, told the council that the Agape House board is fully supportive of Stepping Stones. She said a board member visited the Walla Walla shelter – unannounced – and came back with a glowing report.
“The education program makes this a valuable project,” she said. “Our board voted to support it.”
Hermiston City Manager said the amount requested from the city is likely more than it can afford, but said the city could probably provide $60,000 up front with a $30,000 annual contribution. But council members want more details about how the project would be self-sufficient down the road before making a commitment.
Councilor Roy Barron said he supports the idea, but wants to make sure all other funding options have been explored. Councilor Jackie Myers agreed.
“I’d like to see all the pieces in place before we can make a decision,” she said.
Lloyd said $65,000 has already been raised and that will be used to fence the property and level and gravel the ground. Enough money has been pledged to fund the construction of 17 huts.
Dean Hackett, pastor of the Living Faith Church in Hermiston, said there is a definite need in Hermiston, but wants to make sure that all security issues have been addressed and that a proper vetting process is in place for personnel.
The city council voted 8-0 to encourage the Stepping Stones board to continue with their efforts and to come back with more details in the coming weeks.