Crowd delivers strong message against homeless staying in cars at church overnight

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As the meeting to discuss a potential Safe Parking Program at Christ the King Lutheran Church was breaking up, Just Compassion Executive Director Vernon Baker (far left) and Pastor Dorothy Cottingham (center in dark blue) were still taking questions from the audience. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life
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The majority of several hundred people packed into the sanctuary and lobby of Christ the King Lutheran Church on lower Bull Mountain Road in Tigard on the evening of Jan. 30 were not there to attend a church service but to express concerns over a proposed plan to allow homeless people to stay overnight, with two people per vehicle in up to three vehicles, in the church parking lot.

The pilot Safe Parking Program would be co-sponsored by the church board, the City of Tigard and Just Compassion, a non-profit organization that started in 2018 and currently provides meals, social services, clothing, help with getting jobs and an overnight shelter at its Hall Boulevard location.

Vernon Baker, executive director of Just Compassion, and the church’s Pastor Dorothy Cottingham facilitated the meeting and tried hard to maintain control of the crowd, with Cottingham walking the mic around to people asking questions, but the event disintegrated into a yelling match toward the end of the 2 1/2-hour-long meeting.

Baker explained that Just Compassion started a pilot Safe Parking Program in Beaverton in 2019, which has been successful. He said that the sites are not disclosed to the public; the sites have locked restrooms and hand-washing stations that only participants can access; participants undergo background checks but not drug testing; and participants work with Just Compassion staff to “remove barriers to housing.” However, after he added that “we don’t have someone on site overnight – they monitor each other,” the audience groaned.

Baker added that Just Compassion has five case managers, and there are about 300 homeless people in the Tigard area. “We don’t want to be intrusive or invasive,” he said. “Our goal is to help eliminate these vehicles from being (parked) on the streets. If Just Compassion wasn’t here, there would still be homeless people. With no one to work beside these people, there would be more drug use and crime.”

When the audience was asked for a show of hands on how many would support the program at the church, only a couple dozen people raised their hands. And one man who said he attends a church in Beaverton, explained, “We had similar concerns. They did not happen. It was not a tent city.”

However, another man said to a round of applause, “You have no drug testing. They could do drugs 100 feet away from us.”

Baker explained, “If we weren’t here, people would still have access to drugs. If people (in the parking program) cause problems, they will be asked to leave… If there is a problem, we call the police. We have the ability to exit people any time and (in Beaverton) have never had a problem with them not exiting and coming back.”

Many people, including parents of students in a preschool program at the church, raised concerns about homeless people already sleeping overnight and hanging out on church property. Cottingham said the preschool program was ending in June, and if the Safe Parking Program started up before then, steps would be taken to protect the children.

“I love this community,” she said. “I would do nothing to harm this community.”

A man said, “No one has a lack of compassion for these people, but they may be addicted to drugs or they are criminals. There is no fence between this parking lot and the next-door apartments. There are women with children living there.”

The apartment manager said that even with security, “people are breaking into Dumpsters and empty units. My security is going to be upped (if the Safe Parking Program goes into effect).”

Several people suggested putting the Safe Parking Program in a city-owned parking lot in downtown Tigard or in a commercial/industrial parking lot, while others reported being assaulted or robbed by homeless people and asked, “If something happens, who should be held accountable?”

Kim Ezell, the city’s program manager/strategic initiatives, answered, “We don’t have space to host the program at the City Hall or Public Works parking lots.”

In response to a question, Mayor Heidi Lueb said, “The City of Tigard is not in the business of building (housing) and supporting the homeless. Washington County is doing that. Whether in this parking lot or another one, we’re trying to meet (the homeless) where they are and get them housed. There are a lot of regulations we have to follow.”

She added, “Oregon is 50,000 short of housing units, and Tigard has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Washington County.”

When someone asked if the police would patrol the sites, Lueb said, “The police will not enforce compliance. This is not their responsibility to patrol these areas over and over, but they will respond when they get calls.”

Toward the end of the meeting, someone asked Cottingham, “Has the community given you the message, Pastor Dorothy, that it does not support this program?”

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