The Annex, a new regional transitional housing facility in The Dalles, draws both praise and criticism
Following Mid-Columbia Community Action Council’s announcement that they had purchased and would be remodeling the Oregon Motor Motel into a transitional shelter called The Annex, there has been both conversation and debate about both The Annex concept and its location.
The Oregon Motor Motel is located at 200 W. Second St., and, due to its proximity to The Dalles downtown, many business owners have voiced concerns about how the introduction of the shelter might affect their businesses.
The Annex will provide regional transitional housing for residents of Hood River, Sherman and Wasco counties.
At the most recent City of The Dalles council meeting, Feb. 27, several business owners voiced their concerns about the project during public comment.
Tracy Griffiths, owner of Willow + Bark Boutique, expressed her frustrations with the location of The Annex as it relates to the businesses and restaurants of downtown. As her business is located at 203 E. Second St., three blocks away from the site of The Annex, she described herself as disappointed in the community and the city for allowing The Annex to be located downtown.
“We have tried to create a good downtown environment, a place for people to feel good about coming and spending money and eating at restaurants,” she said. “And now you are going to bring a homeless shelter into our downtown core. This is a death sentence for The Dalles.”
Griffiths reflected on her own experience, explaining that she lived in Portland for 34 years but she now considers the city to be “in shambles” due to the number of homeless people in its downtown core. She expressed concern that building a shelter in downtown The Dalles would cause more homeless people to come to the area.
“We are going to be overrun with a homeless population here because you know what? Hood River doesn’t want it,” she said. “We’re going to be the dumping ground in the Columbia River Gorge for a homeless population.”
She continued by saying she felt the city didn’t make decisions that were good for businesses, and that she believed the location of The Annex project would cause businesses to close and business owners to move to another town.
She also listed other concerns including strain on the police force, the potential for car crashes at the intersection where The Annex will be, and increased difficulty in passing school bonds.
House Bill 3261
Following Griffiths’ statements, The Dalles Mayor Rich Mays clarified that the project was not a city one, and asked Community Development Director Joshua Chandler to speak about the permit and application process for the shelter.
Chandler explained that the project was currently in review through House Bill 3261, an Oregon bill that states that a city must unconditionally approve such a use if it meets certain criteria.
As this project meets the criteria, the city is required to permit it.
A few other business owners and community members spoke throughout the meeting. Laure Shelquist voiced concerns about The Annex serving three counties, saying that according to someone at St. Vincent de Paul, there were currently approximately 330 homeless people in The Dalles. As The Annex will have 54 rooms, she expressed doubts that there would be enough housing for The Dalles alone, let alone three counties. Shelquist also said that she heard the pallet shelters in Hood River would be closing on March 31, and all of the people from there would come to The Annex in The Dalles for housing instead.
“We’re going to be inundated with homeless people, more than we are already.” she said. “So what is the plan for all of these people who are going to be brought to this small community?”
City to address concerns
Mays said that, as this is not a city project, that would be a question better suited for MCCAC and directed Shelquist to their website. He also said police would be ready to act on any nuisances that resulted from The Annex.
“I’m not going to defend the project,” Mays said. “I’m just telling you what we’re going to do as a city is do the best we can to address any nuisance that might come up as a result of this project.”
City Councilor Darcy Long said that the council should consider making a task force and getting community input on potential new ordinances to help with any nuisances that might arise, volunteering to help spearhead the effort.
“I’m a huge supporter of taking care of our homeless population but I also need to balance that with the community as well,” she said. “To me those are equal things, one is not more important than the other. And I do feel like there are a lot of people here who do not feel heard at this point.”
Shelquist agreed with the sentiment of feeling unheard, expressing frustration in the perceived lack of communication by the city about the project. Many others who spoke seconded this feeling, with a common sentiment being that it was sprung on them.
Other community members who spoke were Jennifer Gunter, who had questions about the state declaration of homeless as a public health emergency; Sierra Wright, who expressed support for transitional housing but wanted the location changed; and Nicole Chaisson, who listed some homelessness statistics from Multnomah County as an example of what she believed could happen in The Dalles and asked the city to use sanctuary laws to ignore HB 3261.
Following a 10-minute break, Ben Wring of Smoke Wring BBQ spoke as well, encouraging the city to be more forward with communication and outreach going forwards.
“It was very upsetting to sort of be surprised by this,” Wring said. “I think that’s probably what you’ve seen over the last few days and weeks. I don’t think there’s people that don’t support the idea of housing the homeless and helping. I think that is an issue, I think we all see that it is, but I think that further outreach and transparency and communication is massively important.”
Chamber of Commerce
On Thursday, March 2, The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce met at 7 a.m. for their Community Affairs meeting, which was led by MCCAC Executive Director Kenny LaPoint and Housing Stabilization Director Kelli Horvath, as well as Shelter Operations Manager Rob Mendoza. The main subject of the meeting was The Annex.
LaPoint kicked off the meeting by giving a brief overview of himself and his history working for the state of Oregon’s Housing Agency, as well as for the Central Oregon Housing Authority, before starting his position at MCCAC in November 2020. LaPoint also gave some background on MCCAC and the various things they do in the community, including housing and utility assistance.
“Our mission is to build a better future for our community through partnership — and equity-centered programs that prevent and eliminate homelessness,” he said of MCCAC. “We want to make sure that our community is safe, that folks have access to services. We believe that the community is better when folks have access to safe and affordable housing.”
On the topic of The Annex, LaPoint gave an overview of Project Turnkey, the state project that provided them with the funds. He also spoke about the Oregon Motor Motel, explaining that it has been used to house their clients for years.
“For the past couple of years, we’ve been housing more people in the Oregon Motor Motel than the hotel itself has been housing,” he said.
According to LaPoint, MCCAC currently utilizes a hotel voucher program to house families with children, those fleeing domestic violence, and those coming out of the medical system who need a stable place to recover. In the past, however, vouchers have been limited to a few days. The Annex will house people for up to six months, making it the first long-term shelter that houses families in the area.
Renovations have already begun on The Annex, LaPoint said, with a new roof already being put on. LaPoint said that when they took the motel over, it was in bad condition, and the goal is to fix it up to make sure it’s a safe environment.
LaPoint also mentioned several of MCCAC’s partners in the project, including the Oregon Human Development Corporation, who serves the Latinx community and farmworkers.
Some of the rooms in The Annex will be set aside for migrant seasonal farmworkers, LaPoint said.
Other partners included Mid-Columbia Medical Center, The Next Door, and Columbia Center for Living.
Not emergency housing
In regards to operations, LaPoint clarified that The Annex is not an emergency shelter, it is transitional housing.
“Folks are still going to need a place to stay inside, whether it’s winter or summer and providing year-round 24/7 services allows us to wrap services around the client, rather than them coming in and then leaving in the morning,” he said. “Then we don’t get to connect them with housing, employment, behavioral health, physical health services. Clients need a lot of access to those other services and the middle of the night is not the right time to do that.”
In 2022, MCCAC was able to transition 79 clients out of their pallet shelters and into permanent housing, a number which they hope to multiply with a much larger number of beds and the ability to support more clients at one time.
At The Annex, Mendoza will serve as on-site management. According to LaPoint, Mendoza has a history of working with The Dalles Police Department, is a certified alcohol and drug counselor, and has also worked at Center for Living. In addition to Mendoza, there will be two on-call resident managers who will live on the site.
There will also be housing stabilization staff on the site between 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. LaPoint said MCCAC is also working with Center for Living to hire additional peer support specialists as well as community health workers on the site.
LaPoint said that one of the biggest parts of their strategy in managing The Annex will be their housing first philosophy.
“The idea behind that is that we try and get folks into housing as quickly as possible,” he said. “I’ll say that is really based on their current situation, if they’re ready and able to get into housing. Sometimes we need to take some time and help provide them with some other resources to get them prepared to live in a longer term permanent housing environment. So we may not place every single person into permanent housing right off the bat, but we are always working to get there.”
LaPoint said the shelter will also operate off behavior-based rules and guidelines in what’s called the “good neighbor agreement.” In this agreement, clients must be respectful of staff, cannot use alcohol or drugs on the shelter site, cannot have weapons or fight, and cannot loiter on neighboring properties. According to LaPoint, MCCAC frequently checks in with the neighbors at their current shelter site to make sure things are running well.
“One thing I think everybody should note is while we have been placing folks in hotels in the community, many of these other entities have also been doing the same thing,” he said. “The idea here was that we were pooling those resources together to operate a single site that we can all provide services in. Hotel sheltering has been happening for years in this community. In fact, it was the only type of shelter in this community about four years ago.”
LaPoint also addressed some of the issues associated with homelessness that currently exist in The Dalles, including the situation on Pentland Street, where many homeless people often camp and store their things.
“I will just flat out say that we are not going to fix the issues that are occurring in areas like Pentland Street or in the Mill Creek Area,” he said. “The client issues there are beyond our ability to serve. We have tried to, but I have my own concerns with my clients’ safety, staff safety, volunteer safety, and we just aren’t willing to put ourselves in that line. There’s a different type of service that needs to be offered to that population that homeless service providers do not provide, and that’s a very big conversation, a much different conversation. We have escalated that issue to the state of Oregon.”
Following LaPoint’s presentation, the rest of the time was used for questions from those in attendance. One question asked in the chat was what the process was for someone who broke the rules and were removed from The Annex, as well as where they would go from there.
This question was also came up multiple times in the discussion with Oregon Sen. Daniel Bonham on Friday night.
LaPoint explained that MCCAC cannot force anyone to make good choices and that, in some cases, people will either break rules consistently and be made to leave, or will choose to leave so they don’t have to follow the rules. In that case, law enforcement can try to get involved, but ultimately it is up to the people leaving where they go and what they do.
“One thing I want to say is the rules are not punitive,” he said. “The rules are expectations. Because we believe in people, we believe that people can be better than living in a pile of trash. That is something that we believe and if you talk to folks who are on the street, nobody believes in them. Nobody has hope for them. And we are helping to impart hope into them that they may have not experienced ... We’re saying these expectations that we have are not because we want to be punitive, it’s because we think that you can be better. And we think you can get into permanent housing.”
Another question in the chat that also came up on Friday night was whether The Annex would attract more people who would end up causing problems. LaPoint explained that, in his experience, communities tend to assume that other communities are “sending” their homeless people to them. In reality, everyone is working together to get people the help they need. He also said, in his experience, the “if you build it, they will come” attitude has not been accurate. In fact, with the new resources they have been providing, homelessness has dropped 20% in Wasco County in the last year, rather than rising.
Town hall April 3
LaPoint then encouraged people to attend the town hall at 5:30 p.m. April 3 at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. The town hall will have members from various organizations working on the issue of homelessness, including an attorney from the League of Oregon Cities to help address statewide laws, as well as local agencies like MCCAC and Center for Living.
Daniel Bonham at Last Stop
On Friday, March 3, Oregon State Sen. Daniel Bonham appeared at Last Stop Saloon in an event run by the Chamber of Commerce. The restaurant was packed with community members, with most tables filled by those attending the discussion.
Bonham expressed his surprise at the turnout, admitting he hadn’t expected a full town hall, but rather a discussion between himself and some concerned business owners. He thanked people for coming and said his objective in attending was to collect community concerns to take back to Salem.
According to Bonham, many of the problems being caused by the location of The Annex are due to laws made in Salem, such as HB 3261. Bonham said that as a Republican, he is a minority voice in the Oregon government and is often overridden. He continued to say that he expected most of the concerns brought up to be ones he shared.
“I’m going to imagine that most of the things I’m going to hear from you tonight are things that I said on the House floor, speaking out against this, having concerns,” he said. “But I want to emphasize this: I think we all care about people that are homeless. I think we all care about people that are facing addiction problems, that are facing mental health problems. And I think the challenge comes in, how do we solve that problem? I think we need to get people off of drugs.”
Though LaPoint was not able to attend the meeting, he was frequently mentioned by Bonham and those in attendance. Many people in attendance had questions for LaPoint about logistics or statistics, and they were encouraged to either reach out to him directly or to attend the town hall at the Discovery Center on April 3, as LaPoint and Bonham would both be in attendance there.
The discussion with Bonham and members of the community went on for about two hours, during which most of the questions and concerns were critical of the project, with many people expressing beliefs that it would cause issues for both downtown and The Dalles as a whole. Though the goal was for Bonham to learn concerns to bring back to Salem, there was a mounting frustration as he was unable to provide answers to many of the questions they had.
A few community members spoke in support of the project, with a few telling their own personal stories of being homeless, but the overall sentiment toward the project was negative, with the tone mirroring that shown in the city council meeting.
Further into the meeting, Mayor Mays was also brought up to speak. He talked about the ways the city has struggled with homelessness for years, as well as how police are limited in how they can arrest and detain homeless people, and expressed support for MCCAC’s efforts so far.
“I frankly think they’re doing as good a job as they can do to provide shelter for the homeless with the resources they have at their disposal,” he said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill spoke about the Resolution Center project that the county is working on and hopes to open in the next several years. He said the goal is for that project to help solve the issues of those on the street suffering from severe mental illness and drug addiction, the people that MCCAC is unable to help.
Magill explained that the Resolution Center will provide treatment for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, as well as mental illness crises. He said he had seen firsthand the difference help can make, and believes that difference can be made at the Resolution Center for the people who may currently be regarded as hopeless.
“We can fix this,” Magill said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to come together and do it. And we can do it. Are there going to be trials and tribulations as we go through it? Absolutely. That’s going to happen, we’re gonna have disagreements, but we’ve got to find that common ground, we’ve got to come together and fix it. I’ve seen it work.
“I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t fully believe in this … I won’t back something if I don’t think it’s going to be successful.”
The meeting concluded with another reminder to attend the town hall on April 3, as it will serve as a more in-depth town hall with multiple authorities on the subject.