When the Holiday Farm Fire ravaged the land along the McKenzie River last Labor Day weekend, it left many residents displaced, their homes destroyed. Nine months later, some were able to return, but others are still living in temporary housing.
In response to the ongoing housing need, Lane County partnered with Homes for Good and received funding from the state to purchase a Red Lion Hotel on East Broadway in Eugene, converting rooms into temporary supportive housing for those displaced by wildfires. Since it opened in March , the hotel has provided housing for many families who have been living in hotels and with friends, but some McKenzie River residents have voiced concerns about safety, and that other people living in the former hotel are not from fire-affected areas.
Ela Kubok, the communications director for Homes For Good, says some families have already transitioned out of the hotel and into more permanent housing. More people moved in and, as of June, 98 people fill 48 out of the 50 available rooms.“We need a lot more than this location could offer, but it is what we are working with,” Kubok says. “What we hope is that some families or people are able to move on so others can be referred to and start living there as well.”
Lane County got money to buy the hotel through a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, which provides grants to efforts such as Project Turnkey, a state-wide project that provides funds for counties to purchase housing for those at risk for homelessness. The hotel was purchased for $5.5 million and costs around $970,000 to operate for a year, according to Steve Manela, Lane County Human Services Division manager.
After the hotel was bought and converted into living spaces, families affected by the wildfire moved in and Homes For Good took over the day-to-day operations, Kubok says.
She says the goal is to eventually move those living in the hotel into other housing, whether it’s a rebuilt home along the McKenzie River or affordable housing provided by Homes For Good.
“It is definitely not ideal to be staying in a hotel that’s intended for short stays,” Kubok says. She says when folks moved in, Homes For Good hosted a giveaway, providing cutlery, mugs, crockpots and other kitchen utensils to help residents feel more at home.
Manela says after the fire survivors move out and find housing, the hotel, which residents voted to rename Bridges On Broadway, will be converted to permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals living on the streets of Eugene.
“We hope there is an ability to purchase more properties like this. It’s more cost effective than building new buildings,” Manela says.
Because there are no kitchenettes in the hotel rooms, Kubok says residents have several options for meals. They can use appliances, like microwaves and slow cookers, in their own room. The local YMCA provides healthy snacks weekly, and the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) coordinates other meal deliveries.
“There’s issues that come with that, like space constraints and location of the hotel,” Kubok says. She adds that the closest grocery store, Whole Foods, is not a budget friendly place to shop.
Some families have not felt comfortable living at Bridges On Broadway.
After being displaced by the fire, Heather Holland was living in the Marriott Courtyard hotel in Springfield. She was told one day that she would be transferred to Bridges On Broadway. Holland, her boyfriend and her 12-year-old daughter moved to the new space, knowing they had no other choice.
Holland says after living in the former Red Lion hotel, she is concerned with a lack of enforcement of the rules. She says this leads to unclean hallways, unwanted guests in the building, drug use and people not following COVID-19 protocols. There is not really any oversight, she says.
“It’s not somewhere I want to leave my daughter when I’m gone at work during the day,” Holland says.
Kubok says Homes for Good has a contract with a security officer who is supposed to monitor safety. She also says that after getting residents’ feedback they updated their guest policy so that guests have to sign in and be accompanied by a resident.
Holland’s other concern is that not everyone receiving the housing is from the McKenzie River area. She says there are people that aren’t supposed to live there, and she wants a better process for vetting individuals at this point, more than nine months after the fire.
Melanie Brite owned the liquor store and only grocery store in Blue River. Brite has lived in that area for 29 years and says her store was the unofficial town hall “because if you needed information, you’d come in there.”
She says she has seen herself, and heard from multiple people living at Bridges On Broadway, that there are people living there who aren’t from the McKenzie River community. Brite explains that she knows every person, housed and unhoused, who lives along the river.
“There is a lot of illegal activity happening there,” she says of Bridges On Broadway. “There are people that don’t necessarily feel safe there, but they don’t have another choice.”
ODHS is in charge of screening individuals to live in Project Turnkey locations. In an email, Sherryll Hoar, a communications officer with ODHS, writes that for the screening process, they interview individuals over the phone. For Bridges On Broadway, Hoar says a person or family qualifies if they lost their primary dwelling in the Holiday Farm Fire and need shelter.
“The evacuee gives us their pre-disaster address which is verified as being in the impacted area. If it is questionable then further verification can be requested,” she says, adding that there will always be a limit to the information that can be validated in some circumstances.
ODHS cautions people not to judge others, Hoar says, and “some evacuees did not live in typical housing situations,” giving as examples people living in an RV on Forest Service land, or staying on someone else’s property.
Kubok says that if people have issues they should contact the property manager or customer service. She says the front desk is staffed 24/7.
“We prioritized housing people. There is a lot more thoughtfulness and improvement to everyone’s experience that we are hoping to grow together in the time we serve residents of Bridges on Broadway,” she says.