Council meeting raises new concerns over ongoing homeless issues


January incident prompts public comment, social media debate over unsheltered population

Feb. 8, 2020 — Homelessness was a major topic of discussion during the Feb. 3 Florence City Council meeting, as a public comment regarding an incident near Safeway sparked a response from Florence Police Chief Tom Turner.

On Jan. 16, according to the Florence Police report on the incident, the department “received several calls reporting a fight on Eighth Street, adjacent to the Safeway store. Upon arrival of police officers, the fight was no longer in progress but several of the involved parties were still on scene.”

After conducting interviews with the involved persons and witnesses, police determined that this was a “mutual combat” situation and no arrests were made in relation to the fight. According to the report, the parties involved were separated and “one female was placed in protective custody for detox due to her level of intoxication and was transported to the Florence City jail.”

Shortly after the incident, Tammy L. Westrich posted the following on the Florence Community Crime Watch Facebook page: “I am not amused by our homeless status here. I know a lot of you have issues with them as well. However, my beautiful daughter who has a traumatic brain injury was walking to Safeway to get something to go with dinner because it was sunny and a short walk there. She has finally been able to leave the house since her accident.”

Westritch went on to comment that her daughter “was beat up by two homeless men and one homeless girl” as she was talking to the trio about their dog and “before she knew it her head was bashed into the asphalt many times,” resulting in cuts, bruises a black eye and additional injuries.

“It is sad to see your child be attacked by these people,” commented Westrich, who said police took her daughter to the hospital because “Eight homeless people said my daughter started a fight … It was her word amongst seven homeless men and one woman.”

Westrich then warned about “the man and woman [who] have two beautiful Australian mix dogs and another one rides a bike with a bright orange beanie,” adding “May they reap what they see. Homeless need to go [sic].”

The post was widely shared, receiving hundreds of views.

On the Let’s Talk, Florence Oregon Facebook Page, Donna Rudd wrote, “I called FPD and they have no police report on file and did not acknowledge that this incident happened. Tammy Westrich, was a police report filed? Did your daughter go to the hospital?”

Jennifer Ann Morin wrote, “No police report nothing when you look it up, a witness says the non-homeless person was provoking the homeless lady but alright...”

Tarvin answered, “While that is true, unfortunately the few bad ones make it bad for the rest. I’m speaking from experience. in the case of yesterday’s beating, where is the mercy for the young girl? she WAS being friendly and look what it got her.”

On Jan. 17, Florence Police Department released a statement titled: “Official Police Report Released On Eighth Street Melee,” which read in part: “There has been a lot of commenting and relaying of misinformation on social media regarding a fight that occurred last Thursday on Eighth Street across from Safeway reportedly involving ‘a group’ of homeless people attacking a young woman …”

The statement listed the police department’s information, which determined that it was a mutual combat situation with no arrests, though one female was placed in protective custody. The statement was listed as case number #20-0331.

That police department statement was widely shared on social media, including on the Siuslaw News’ Facebook page. Sandy Todd, who helped lead the local Point in Time count on Jan. 30, posted the following:

“Violence is awful no matter who engages in it. It’s terrible at a bar, in someone’s home, a business, anywhere and by anybody. Alcohol contributes to probably 90% of violent incidents that police have to respond to and break up and I’d bet 90% of those incidents do not involve homeless people.”

Jeannie LaRocco posted, “Odds are the witnesses were the friends of the attacker. Defending yourself should never be considered mutual combat. This needs to go to district attorney for review.”

Westrich replied to LaRocco, making additional claims that the specified group of homeless watch out for each other and were the only witnesses. “I do wish this was caught on camera so people would understand my daughter only stopped this disgusting woman from trying to put her tongue down my daughters [sic] throat,” Westrich wrote. “I am disgusted by this. I am and support all rights of people who ever they love but no don’t try to kiss my beautiful daughter because her Traumatic brain injury makes her vulnerable at times.”

Marlene Goodman Rodriguez wrote, “What facts are there tho? I mean, it’s hearsay to even the police because they were not there. It’s all a bunch of malarkey … I am homeless been that way over a year I don’t leave my trash and stuff all over. It’s all about the consequences if they get none it will continue to happen and nothing will change.”

“This particular event has been portrayed significantly differently to the public through Facebook than what actually occurred.” — Police Chief Tom Turner

In public comments during Monday’s council meeting, local artist Daniel Burgess spoke to the city council.

“The problem, Florence has an increasing vagrant and homeless population,” he read from a statement to the city council. “We’re seeing more handout seekers on corners, particularly on Eighth Street on the bus stop located on the north side of Safeway. Unfortunately, it is common to find in this demographic, personalities and habits, that can be very negative.”

He then described the attack from Westrich’s point of view, stating, “This incident is boarding on gang behavior, not simply panhandlers on a corner.”

Burgess went on to claim that though this incident was the worst situation to arise, it is not isolated. “Others have expressed feeling unsafe or receiving aggressive behavior of those who have staked out this section of our city. The area is constantly littered with garbage. My wife used to walk between Safeway and the Dunes Village Center for her shopping needs. She no longer does this because she feels this area is unsafe, especially when she has our two children with her.”

Burgess suggested a solution to the problem:  to remove the shelter and bench at the Eighth Street bus stop. One member of the audience later added that they would be happy to remove the stop for the city.

Burgess closed by saying, “The City of Florence, and those who have a responsibility of managing it, need to implement effective policies and practice habits personally that encourage those who are unable to live in a traditional manner to still be a positive influence in our town. And those with actions that are negative or dangerous must receive consequences that do not encourage them to continue to do so.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Turner addressed the city council.

“As you guys know, because you were given an email and we did a news release surrounding that particular event, there were a lot of complexities to the event. I want to encourage the council that, oftentimes, information reported second-hand and third-hand is not accurate to what actually occurred at the event,” he stated. “This particular event has been portrayed significantly differently to the public through Facebook than what actually occurred. That information usually remains private. It was very well documented.”

Turner did not deny that there were issues with the area, saying, “We would like to make that area safer, but unfortunately it is difficult to do. It’s very uniquely located, which makes it even worse. So, we’re looking at some options on how to make it better.”

As for the removal of the bus stop, Turner advised that the issue was complicated.

“It’s owned by the city, leased to a vendor and Safeway has some of the property as well,” he said. “It’s kind of a complex little area. We are working with it. One of the things is that it does tend to attract a group of people that makes it very difficult.”

Turner stated that they will continue to work on the issue.

“We tried to move things around, but it hasn’t functioned right because of the way the bus stop is situated. The problem that I have with [shutting it down] is that I’m not sure it would work. It’s the location, not the structure,” he said.

 “I’m told that our homeless population is declining, though we have no way to measure it.” — Mayor Joe Henry

Nearly a year before the incident, Florence City Council discussed the issue in a work session on Feb. 13, 2019. In an over two-hour conversation, the city discussed a variety of issues, including the Siuslaw School District, parking in Old Town and the vision of the city.

When the councilor’s began discussing city priorities, the difficulties surrounding homelessness was brought into focus.

“I also think that public safety and drug usage is more important than homelessness. Because a lot of those homeless guys are on drugs,” said Councilor Geraldine Lucio, who was newly elected at the time.

Mayor Joe Henry agreed, saying, “They’re interrelated.”

“Yeah. I’m renting the condo on Harbor Street now, and I watch this house where literally homeless people went in and out of it for three hours yesterday,” Lucio said.

City Manager Erin Reynolds asked if Lucio had called about the issue, and Lucio said she had not.

“Please call,” Reynolds said.

Lucio continued, “But, that’s kind of wrapped around the homeless community. I understand that not all homeless people are on drugs. But at the same time, there should be some way to address this drug issue. Because a lot of them are on illegal stuff.”

Councilor Joshua Greene said that the Port of Siuslaw had homeless people and drug users overnight all the time, with Lucio adding that the issues had been minimized — the restrooms were locked, but “there are still ways they can run in as soon as one of the RV-ers gets out of there.”

Councilor Ron Preisler conceded that homelessness is one of the major problems in the state and country.

“And so is drug use,” Lucio added.

“But I don’t see how you can tie that to every homeless person as a drug user,” Preisler said.

“Well, it’s not every homeless person,” Lucio said. “I was homeless for six months when I moved to Florence. I have stood on the corner and begged for money. I pushed forward, I opened a business.”

Preisler countered, “You’re an exceptional woman, Geraldine, but not everybody is exceptional. A lot of people, just average people, they get in trouble and need a hand up. That’s a good thing.”

“Well, I see a lot of people standing on the corner of Safeway and go into this drug house across the street from where I am,” Lucio said.

Preisler stated there was no argument there and that “there’s lots of drug use in our town.”

For the city staff perspective, Reynolds said, “One thing we did, again because you can’t put any one person — or group of people — into one bucket, we did acknowledge housing is tied to homelessness as well.”

Reynolds added that one of the biggest goals of the city is to increase housing stock and diversity of housing stock so it can provide opportunity for housing, “should all the pieces come together for a person. As far as public safety goes, to me that’s one of the must-do things that is already there as our foundation as a city. If you’d like more emphasis put on that, obviously we can move that up a bit if that’s something I’m hearing today.”

“Well, we try and address the affordable — or whatever you want to call it — issue, that would have some effect on homelessness,” Henry said.

Reynolds added, “As will the jobs piece.”

“I’m also told that our homeless population is declining,” said Henry, “though we have no way to measure it.”

A year later, from the perspective of those who are unsheltered, things have gotten worse in the area. 

“I have no idea what the committees are doing.” — City Counselor Joshua Greene

As reported in the Siuslaw News story “Lane County Conducts Point In Time Count” (Feb. 5), one anonymous unsheltered individual said, “We have hemorrhaged services for the homeless for the last five years. We lost the showers at the port, Helping Hands lost its building and are doing a lot less than they were, and SOS has less funding, so they are doing less. We have been losing lots of services as the homeless population has skyrocketed.”

In the past couple years, the city has made clear strides in attracting multiple housing projects, with hundreds of homes being planned.

But, “I’m not sure anyone is going to find anything that can fit in the $200,000 price point, unless it’s a situation like DevNW where they’re a nonprofit and they’re not out to make money, they’re just trying to get housing to people,” Wendy FarleyCampbell said in an interview with Siuslaw News last December regarding the city’s progress on housing.

In January, DevNW, formerly NEDCO, broke ground on 12 new units for affordable housing, though that’s a small percentage of what is being planned.

According to FarleyCampbell, city staff was actively seeking nonprofit developments centered around affordable housing, such as Habitat for Humanity, which is working on projects in the area.

Up until the city’s involvement, the majority of work with housing the homeless has been in the nonprofit and religious sector, including half-way-housing with First Step at the Presbyterian Church of the Siuslaw.

While the Florence Planning Commission has done work on housing, its power is mostly in approval rather than creating a vision. If a vision for dealing with homelessness is to be established, it would have to be done in coordination between city staff, the police department, community groups and through the Community and Economic Development Committee (ECDC). That committee, led by chairperson Robbie Wright and vice-chair William Prosser, is tasked with advising the city council with matters of economic development, housing, parks and recreation and community development.

Other members of the committee include Jeff Ashmead, Claire Waggoner, Vanessa Buss and Russ Pierson, with Henry acting as the council ex-officio.

The committee, which was implemented in the beginning of 2019, primarily focused on updating housing codes throughout the year.

The committee has seen members drop throughout 2019, including Graham Ross, Kurt Vander Bogart and, most recently, David Montes.

However, at Monday’s council meeting, Henry appointed Dan Lofy, Patrick Ritter, Carla Twombly, Nicholas Costa and David West to the committee.

If the committee were to work on the issue of homelessness, it would have to receive direction from the city council. However, the council has recently seen fewer work sessions during which the homeless issue could be discussed.

“I would like to see more work sessions,” Greene said at the end of Monday’s meeting. “I know it’s something that seems to be avoided, but I have no idea what the committees are doing and what they’re working on. I would like to be able to be part of that creation of their vision. I know they’re picking up where the other teams left off. Now that you’ve named new people, it might be good to have a series of work sessions so we can really inspire them to move forward and give them some direction and guidance.”

The next city council work session is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 24, beginning at 10:30 a.m., although the city calendar marks the meeting as “tentative.” For more information, visit ci.florence.or.us.

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