Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Update on Gresham Shelters

Many of you, including myself, have been concerned about the homeless over the last couple days in Gresham and Portland. There has been inadequate shelter for those in need, and the city has been active in preventing some of us in providing shelter for those in need. They have threatened us with citation and fines should we continue to provide shelter for those in the cold. This is a terrible situation and one that needs to change. The question is, how?

I have just met with some of the staff of the city of Gresham, including the head of Emergency Services, someone from the office of the Fire Marshal and a person in the city planning department. There are two levels of shelter, with different requirements for each level. (There are actually more, but we’re keeping it focused on our concerns, here).

a. Temporary Seasonal Residence—This permits a facility that is not intended for residential occupancy to house people overnight for up to 90 days a year. This facility could be open for any purposes, including freezing temperatures. This would be adequate for our needs, but the requirements for a facility to provide this is high. Some of the difficult policies are:
• A particular kind of fire alarm/sprinkler system
• An R-1 residential permit, which requires certain kind of plumbing, including adequate bathrooms and showers.
• An occupancy limit of 200 square feet per person.
There is no facility in East County that is currently permitted for this use.

b. Emergency Warming Shelter—This permits a facility to be approved for 15 days a year for emergency shelter only. This kind of facility may meet a more flexible occupancy limit and is not required to have a residential permit. However, it must still meet the rest of the fire code, which includes a sprinkler system/alarm.

Emergency Warming Shelters in Practice
There are two buildings in East County that are currently permitted for such use, First Baptist of Gresham and the gym of St. Henry’s. However, they are only permitted to use their facilities based on the standards of “emergency” weather as developed by the city. The Emergency Services of Gresham informs these churches that they are permitted to open a shelter and the churches then decide to follow through or not. The Emergency Services department says that an “emergency” is an unusual weather pattern, which cannot be prepared for, such as freezing rain or temperatures under 22 degrees (as well as other levels). Should there be “normal” weather patterns, even if it constitutes a danger to the homeless population, it is not an “emergency” and thus the city does not permit such requirements.

The Emergency Services’ Department also expressed a concern in another issue. They are only permitted to open an emergency weather shelter 15 days per facility a year. This means that they need to conserve their days to be ready for the worst weather of the year, especially since only two facilities are permitted to open. Thus, while some weather may be dangerous to the homeless population (such as 27 degree weather with a 10 mph wind from the Gorge), it is normal weather, and it strains the limits of the permits.

The Anawim Building
Sanctuary is the property of the Mennonite Conference in Gresham that Anawim has a major role in managing. This includes a church building that is on the ground level, has many exits and has been used as an overnight shelter this year many times (without city permission). Why does the city not permit the Sanctuary sanctuary to open? It may not be used as an Emergency Warming shelter because it does not have either a sprinkler system or an alarm, and thus does not pass the fire code.

Why St. Henry’s and 1st Baptist and not Sanctuary?
The gym at St. Henry’s is permitted by the Fire Marshal for, while it doesn’t have a sprinkler system, it does have a fire alarm. First Baptist has both a sprinkler system and an alarm and meets the fire code in every way for an emergency shelter.

Neither facility would be adequate as a Temporary Seasonal Lodging. St. Henry’s does not have a sprinkler system, nor adequate plumbing for a R-1 residency permit. The First Baptist shelter is not at “grade level” , nor does it have adequate plumbing.

On a personal level, it seems to me that the Fire Marshal, not the other parts of city government, are actually angry at Anawim. I assume this is because Anawim allowed shelter to exist before their department could come in and check. They are clearly more interesting in following the strict code without leniency to Anawim (such as they provided to the other facilities). In fact, it was recommended to me that Anawim just stay out of the sheltering business, and instead allow other churches to do this.

The Reality: The fact of the matter is, given the current fire code, building code, building requirements and definition of “emergency” in Gresham, there is a slim opportunity for any church with a good heart to open up their facility to those in need if the temperatures are above 22 degrees dry, 28 degrees.

Who Is Responsible?
I want to be perfectly clear about this: This situation is awful, but it is not the fault of the Gresham Emergency Services. Frankly, nor is it the fault of the Fire Marshal—they are not responsible to ignore fire codes that have been handed to them, but to enforce that code. The only thing the city of Gresham has done is to find out what the codes and state ordinances that pertain are. While some of the people involved I would personally consider somewhat callous to the homeless situation, the ordinances that created this situation did not come from the city of Gresham, but from the State of Oregon government. The 200 square feet per person ordinance, the sprinkler ordinance, the residential requirements—these are all state regulations. Gresham is only enforcing what the state has handed to them. The differentiation between 15 and 90 day shelters come from the state. Thus, the fact that we are not permitted to help the homeless on nights below freezing is a result of the state system.

Of course, we want a bad guy, someone to blame this situation on. So who passed these state regulations? Well the fire code is determined by the Oregon Fire Marshal. And they receive some building requirements (such as 200 square feet per person) from the Oregon Building Code Committee. And why do they make such regulations that prevent us to help the homeless? Because those who provide shelter for the homeless has not, as yet, given input to these regulatory agencies. I’m sorry, but there’s no bad guy here. There are only people who don’t know what is needed.

What About Portland?
It can be asked why Portland allows shelters without such restrictions. The comment that was made by those in Gresham about Portland is that they “turn a blind eye” to certain people providing shelter. I can see that. Portland has realized that the State codes hasn’t yet caught up with the need they are experiencing. The homeless issue is bigger than State codes, and Portland realizes this. Gresham is just beginning to take ownership of their homeless issue, which is bigger than they realize. And they don’t feel the need to turn a blind eye to anything. They want to follow the state regulations. Of course they do.
We would all want to do what is legal. Why should Gresham be different?

What can be done?
a. Make an acceptable facility
We can take a building and make it acceptable according to state code for a 90 day seasonal facility. This would require money and time. If we obtained grants or donations. We could bring the Anawim building up to code. First Baptist is the closest building to state code, so perhaps we can provide updates to that building, if that congregation approves. This will take time, but perhaps by next winter we could have a building gotten through the process.

b. A Media Blitz
We could let the media know about the problems that we are having with obtaining permission to help those in need. However, this will not change the fact that the state regulations deny us that very permission. How can we get the media to focus on the state problem instead of blaming particular individuals or certain cities?

c. Change State Regulations
Perhaps our good friends Oregon Center for Christian Values, who have a poverty committee could assist us in changing the state regulations. This would require changing the building code and fire code of Oregon, granting leniency for those in particular health dangers, particularly hypothermia. We could then provide health shelters for those who are in a doctor approved risk group, to stay in shelters, such as churches, that otherwise wouldn’t meet state requirements. I don’t know, this is just an idea. If you have a better one, let me know.

Nevertheless, we have quite a bit of work to do. This will require the support of many communities and many organizations. This is not just a problem with Gresham, but Oregon in general. We need a lot of prayer and a lot of wise action. Let us be wise, but as long as there are people whose needs could be met, let us never stop.

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