With no secure place for homeless people to sleep, city council and residents again grapple with how to help them

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

Council members, local nonprofit staff and residents aired their concerns Tuesday over where Harrisonburg’s homeless residents spend their nights. 

It was the latest in a series of discussions between city officials, community organizations, downtown businesses, and the police department, which began in response to the behavior of a small group of people who have been trespassed from downtown businesses.

Eric Olson-Getty, director of development and administration at the nonprofit organization Our Community Place, said during public comment that this situation has led to the community center accommodating people overnight on its property for the past three weeks.

“At this stage, we have not been able to secure the resources that we need” to continue doing so, Olson-Getty said, referring to funds to hire night monitors and make other changes to comply with zoning ordinance and building codes for an overnight shelter.

“As of July 29th, our property is going to be closed at night,” if those resources are not procured, Olson-Getty said. “Where can I tell people to go?”

Four other city residents spoke in support of Olson-Getty.

“City staff has walked the premises of O.C.P.” and the organization’s facility does not comply with regulations for an overnight facility, Mayor Deanna Reed said.

“You’re not equipped to handle being an overnight shelter right now … and it pains me to say,” she added.

After the meeting, Reed told The Citizen that the city does not currently have a plan to respond to the roughly 20 people who would be turned away if Our Community Place closes its property at night.

“It is a very complex situation,” Reed said. “We are working with the various executive directors [of service organizations] … to see if we can work together and come up with some kind of plan to help our people in need.”

Reed said that the city cannot commit funds to an overnight shelter at a location that is “not up to code that they need to operate in that kind of setting.”

City Manager Eric Campbell said later in the meeting that city staff have been working for months to identify gaps in the local services offered to homeless people.

“How do we begin to address these gaps?” Campbell asked. He agreed with one public commenter that an “ongoing coalition” would be useful to discuss solutions among both city  and nongovernmental organizations..

Council member George Hirschmann agreed that further discussion would help “identify lanes of action that we could put a pricetag on.”

Request remains in limbo

The council members also revisited an application for a house to become a short-term rental, such as an Airbnb property — a request they voted to table in their last meeting. Ultimately, they made no action on the request.

“We wanted to bring this item back for Vice-mayor [Sal] Romero … since he sits on the planning committee,” Reed said. Romero had been absent at the last city council meeting.

Romero said “one of the biggest concerns of planning commission” was that the home, on Nelson Drive, was not the owner’s primary residence. Unlike other applications the council approved, there would also be nobody else, such as a long-term renter, there to act as an operator of the Airbnb or a similar set-up.

“Will the body … always deny anyone who doesn’t have an owner or an operator?” asked council member Chris Jones.

“There should be some consistency,” Hirshmann said.

Reed said she “tend[s] to agree that the owner should live there.”

“Or somebody,” Hirschmann added.

Romero moved to deny the application. There was no second to his motion, and no other motion was presented – meaning that, while no final action was taken, the special use permit has wasn’t granted to the applicant.

Council member Richard Baugh again recused himself from voting on the issue due to “personal interest” in the transaction.

Also at the meeting:

  • Reed announced the launch of Spanish language interpretation services at city council and planning commission meetings, an initiative Romero has pushed since his election last November. Interpreters are made available by contacting the city clerk’s office four days in advance of a meeting at 540-432-7701 or harrisonburgva.gov/interpreter-request-form.
  • As per legislation from the Virginia General Assembly, the city unanimously approved a mandatory new ordinance to allow “small cell wireless facilities” to be installed in the public right of way. City attorney Chris Brown said these could take the form of short additions on top of lamp posts or electric poles. They are not “traditional cell phone towers,” he said. Director of Planning and Community Development Adam Fletcher said telecommunications conglomerate AT&T has already filed applications to install them.
  • Romero suggested the council consider returning the public comment section to the beginning of the agenda. Jones said “anyone that speaks in public comment can ask us to put them on the agenda.”
  • Director of Communications Michael E. Parks was unanimously appointed as the city’s Freedom of Information Act officer.
  • Campbell announced that external technical issues had hindered the televised broadcast of the meeting that night.

Editor’s note, July 23, 2019: Reporter Randi B. Hagi recently joined the board of directors of Our Community Place, which came up during Tuesday’s city council meeting. 

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