Senator Jeff Merkley visits Eugene, talks homelessness and wildfire response

Sunday, July 16, 2023

By: Julio Mora Rodriguez


EUGENE, Ore. — Senator Jeff Merkley spent time in Eugene Sunday, visiting the area for a town hall as part of his initiative to annually visit all of the state’s 36 counties. Before he met with constituents, the senator made stops to talk about housing production and wildfire response.

His first stop was at the HOPE Community Corporation, an arm of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. He went to their 888 Garfield Street location to tour the manufactured-home production facility housed there. Merkley was impressed by how far HOPE and St. Vincent De Paul have come in the development of the mobile homes.

“Here is a whole community collaboration designed at developing real quality homes that can be available at a much, much, lower price this is an exciting development,” Merkley said.

Terry McDonald, President of HOPE and Executive Director of St. Vinnies, spoke about the ambitious goals of the manufactured home project, as they plan to build 120 units a month.

HOPE is bringing in more than 100 workers to to make the homes and is offering training programs for high school students to get a look at what it’s like working in a manufacturing setting. Merkley found that prospect to be quite exciting.

“So, if they’re going to learn the joy of making things with their hands and the possibility of careers in those fields, we really need those schools–the high schools, that is–to really have programs like this that create that opportunity,” he said.

Merkley was joined at the HOPE facility by State Senator James Manning and State Representative Pam Marsh. The first certified mobile home units will be coming out later in October. For McDonald, HOPE and St. Vincent De Paul, the visit from the senator means a lot.

“More importantly, it brings focus on this particularly important venture of developing mobile homes for a market that is really in need of an affordable product.,” McDonald said.

His second stop was at the University of Oregon and their Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice, where he met with the center’s staff and talked about legislation he’s working on to strengthen the state’s resilience to wildfire smoke and heat.

The funding for the research center was secured by Senator Merkley as a crucial community-initiated project. Experts informed the senator about Oregon’s climate future and showed off a new smoke sensor.

The key part of the tour however, was the senator’s announcement of new legislation he’s working on.

 “I’ll be introducing this coming week, two bills,” Merkley said. “The first bill will be the ‘Smoke and Heat Resilient Communities Act.'”

The legislation he’s proposing would essentially do three things:

The first is to have not just one, but four smoke research centers in other universities across the country, similar to the one at the University of Oregon. He said the idea is that they will be able to collaborate more efficiently.

The second part of this bill would allow the federal Environmental Protection Agency to do more research on the impacts of smoke and heat on the public health.

The third would make grants available for education and infrastructure, making sure public spaces are outfitted with proper air filtration equipment.

Merkley’s second proposed bill would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide shelter, relocation, and smoke monitors to communities facing the challenges of smoke and heat. The bill would also provide compensation for small businesses impacted by smoke rolling through their area.

“The ‘Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act,’ is to recognize these smoky events,” he said. “We don’t have a structure right now to treat them the way we treat tornados, or hurricanes, or earthquakes.”

Senator Merkley believes with the recent Canadian wildfires and their impacts on air quality now is a perfect time to introduce his two bills.

“I think that Senator Wyden and I are going to be able to not just have a coalition of western senators, where the fires have been located, but have more of the country understand this is a very significant challenge that can affect all of us and therefore get more support and momentum behind these bills,” Merkley said.