Umatilla County homeless shelter holds grand opening after months of delays

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Dec. 9, 2023 2 a.m.

Residents are scheduled to move in next month

A barrier and caution tape block off a trench with pipes sticking out it. The trench is between rows of huts.

A portion of the Project PATH property remains under construction in Umatilla, Ore., Dec. 7, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

The group behind a large homeless shelter in Umatilla County celebrated the facility’s grand opening Thursday, a year after breaking ground on the project.

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But the unhoused residents who are expected to use Project PATH will have to wait to stay at the site.

A collaboration between the nonprofit Stepping Stones Alliance and the western Umatilla County cities of Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo, PATH — Practical Assistance Through Housing — is slated to start welcoming residents in January. Stepping Stones executive director Jesalyn Cole said the delay is needed to complete electrical work, fire suppression sprinklers and security renovations.

“We have made considerable progress,” she said. “And that’s why we did move forward with having this event today, knowing that we’re not online yet, we’re not ready to completely move on site. But we have made it so far, and (we) wanted to celebrate that momentum.”

When PATH opens, it will initially feature 21 single-occupancy huts with space heaters, outlets, lights and some other basic furnishings. While the hut residents will be allowed to live in the units long-term, Stepping Stones also will move its warming station and sleep center from Hermiston to the new site to accommodate any residents who can’t stay in the huts..

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Last summer, PATH was mostly a piece of bare ground at the site of a former gravel pit. Stepping Stones and its city partners chose the remote industrial area north of Hermiston to avoid upsetting housed residents closer to a city center. The city of Umatilla soon annexed the two-acre site.

A small crowd mills between rows of huts that are covered by white tarps.

Visitors at the grand opening for Project PATH tour empty residential huts in Umatilla, Ore., Dec. 7, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Supporters broke ground on PATH in November 2022, with plans to open the facility three months later. But turning an industrial area into a habitable space had challenges. The need to drill a well and install a septic system triggered a state review of the ground for Indigenous artifacts. Combined with getting contractors on scene and other logistical hurdles, Cole said PATH’s obstacles were unique.

“This is a facility that nobody is planning for in any other realm,” she said. “It’s not residential, but it’s also not commercial. It’s a really unique situation that the people looking at the plans and approving plans were not ready for, and so (they) didn’t just stamp their approval right away.”

Stepping Stones is also still trying to troubleshoot a transportation issue. PATH is only accessible by car and the roads leading to the property have no sidewalks or bus stops in close proximity. In the short-term, Cole said Stepping Stones plans to continue running a shuttle it uses to take people to the warming station.

But Stepping Stones staff remain optimistic about the project, with a hope to expand to include additional huts and a navigation center where dedicated staff can connect residents with jobs and permanent housing. The goal is to have the capacity to shelter all unhoused residents in western Umatilla County eventually.

“Our camp is coming together as a place where individuals can get a chance to get safe, get warm, get secure and then figure out what steps they want to take to building a future of their own,” Stepping Stones President Cathy Lloyd said.

Cole said current sleep center users will be prioritized at the new PATH site. Those residents haven’t seen the property yet, but she’s hoping to introduce it to them later this month.

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