Oregon has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country: more than 20,000 people, according to a 2011 report. Many are families with children or victims of the economic downturn. Others are veterans with disabilities such as PTSD that make it difficult to reintegrate with society.
However, a solution is in sight—at least on paper. Almost 20 counties—including Benton County—have adopted versions of the state’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which in turn is based on a national plan. The plan has an emphasis on prevention, permanent housing with supportive services, and overall improvements in those services. The philosophy behind it is housing first: securing a safe place to live and then focusing on other services. The belief is that the sense of normalcy provided by a home is integral to dealing with problems such as mental illness or substance abuse.
“Our first goal is to place as many as we can into safe long-term housing and then wrap services around that,” said Mayor Julie Manning, co-chair of the 10-Year Plan Steering Committee.
Housing first has a good track record over conventional homeless programs. It is the philosophy behind Portland’s Dignity Village as well as Opportunity Village, a community-based homeless camp starting up this summer in Eugene.
Eugene’s Opportunity Village came about indirectly as a result of the Occupy movement.
“The folks who did the Occupy thing in Eugene started camping out last year as part of their protest and homeless folks said, ‘Can we stay with you?’” explained Dan Bryant, president of Opportunity Village and pastor at Eugene’s First Christian Church.
“They welcomed them in. That morphed into this little tent city that moved around and finally settled on one location before the city closed it down.”
With not enough beds at emergency shelters, the homeless had nowhere to go. The mayor formed a task force that recommended the city create legal overnight housing. Occupy protesters, advocates for the homeless, churches, and other groups came together to form a plan for Opportunity Village, a pilot program approved last December at an unused acre owned by the Public Works Department.
Microhousing is the name of the game: the plan includes 30 inexpensive shelters for adults, each less than 100 square feet (kitchen, dining, and shower areas are communal).
“We’re intentionally keeping our units smaller [than Dignity Village],” said Bryant. “Our hope is to make this transitional, so that we can then turn around and help someone else.”
Even the site is temporary: 15 months, to be precise. Bryant hopes to
find a larger site, or two sites, when the village’s time is up. The portable units will be brought to the new destination.
The overall goal: “Once you get someone off the street and into a safe and secure place where their belongings are safe and they can get a good, solid eight hours of sleep, then they’re going to be able to function,” said Bryant. “Any time you don’t have a regular place to live, you have to spend so much of your resources just to find a place to sleep that you don’t have time to work on any other issues.”
According to Israel Bayer of Street Roots, a street newspaper that covers homelessness and poverty in Portland, both Dignity Village and a newer camp Right 2 Dream Too have primarily met with positive support.
“Portland is a very progressive, liberal town and I think that the idea of people experiencing homelessness coming together to protect themselves and do better for themselves is something that is supported by a large portion of the general public,” he said.
Bayer noted that in Portland business-related groups typically constitute the opposition to homeless camps. From shelters to camps and services, an excellent support system for the homeless can draw more homeless individuals—but that’s no reason to deny care to people who need it. Launched in December 2004, Portland’s 10-year plan has helped more than 12,000 homeless families and individuals find homes, and also created a slew of new facilities, services, and housing units.
Benton County’s 10-Year Plan
The City of Corvallis last year rejected plans for a homeless camp similar to Dignity Village or Opportunity Village. It is perhaps a matter of scale: Corvallis’ homeless population is under 200 individuals, compared to 5,000 in Portland and 2,000 in Eugene. The emphasis is still on housing first. Here, that means securing housing units and ensuring affordable rentals to help individuals stay in their current homes or attain long-term housing.
Resources abound, including the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, the Men’s Cold-Weather Shelter, and the Jackson Street Youth Shelter. Created under the auspices of the 10-year plan (which began in 2010), new facilities include Partner’s Place housing for the chronically homeless, Alexander Court for victims of domestic violence, Seavey Meadows low-income housing, and a facility in the downtown area that Jackson Street will soon operate for older youth.
“Every person’s situation is going to be different; there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Manning.
According to Manning, the plan’s strength lies in its diversity. Churches, charitable organizations, the housing authority, and other groups share information such as funding opportunities and work together to solve the city’s problems.
“This is not about the government doing something; it’s everybody working together and that’s how we’re really going to address a very complex, challenging issue,” said Manning.
Once individuals are housed, the services come into play: the Adult Services Team for the mentally ill, the organization Community Outreach, Inc., and more. Newly created positions include a street outreach worker based at the Daytime Drop-in Center, a part-time mental health worker, and a community case manager at Community Outreach. To connect with these service providers and more, Manning recommended the 2-1-1 toll-free assistance provided by United Way of Benton and Lincoln Counties.
For the future, the focus is on rental assistance and creating below-market housing. In a town with a rental vacancy rate under one percent, that requires a landlord with heart.
“Because it’s such a tight market there’s not a lot of incentive to rent at below-market rate,” Manning said. “These are very generous people who really have a heart for this work and compassion for people experiencing difficulties.”
Another goal is to find a permanent location for the Cold-Weather Shelter and Daytime Drop-in Center, currently located at First Christian Church.
Still, Corvallis has come a long way. When asked if the 10-year plan has so far met its goals, Manning responded, “Definitely. We have additional housing options, we have new programs and services, expanded programs and services.”
But when asked why there are still so many homeless on Corvallis’ streets, Manning shrugged.
“We have programs, but people who need them may not know about them,” she said. “I really do believe we’ve made quantifiable progress over this period, but we have more to do.”
10-Year Plan Committee Meetings
The Benton County’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness Committee meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month at 1:30 p.m. at the Benton County Oregon Board of Commissioners’ Office, 205 NW 5th Street, Corvallis. Meetings are open to the public. Access the 10-Year Plan:
The Movers and the Shakers
Get involved! Volunteer or donate to one of the following 10-year plan collaborators to help our city’s homeless, or hire an individual who has faced or is facing homelessness to help with yard work, painting or other tasks through the Homeless Employment Launching Project (HELP):
Benton Habitat for Humanity
City of Corvallis
Community Outreach, Inc.
Community Services Consortium
Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition
Corvallis School District
Department of Human Services
First Christian Church
Homeless Employment Launching Project (HELP)
Jackson Street Youth Shelter
Linn-Benton Housing Authority
Love INC of Benton County
Samaritan Health Services
St. Mary’s Catholic Church
United Way of Benton and Lincoln Counties
Willamette Neighborhood Housing Service
By Jen Matteis