By Joel Hutton & Bethany Carlson
Regular Advocate readers will already have a clear sense of both the state of homelessness in Corvallis and past controversies over one shelter’s plans for their future downtown. These plans have now become clearer, raising a new set of concerns for some in the community. Before digging in though, you’ll need a quick recap about the field and the players.
Homelessness is a complex problem that affects many different populations. There are the first-time homeless, often lower middle-class that one may not easily imagine becoming homeless. This group can often be helped back into a permanent home in just a few months. Then there are the transitionally homeless, who can take up to two years after starting to get help to become permanently housed and self-sufficient.
And there are the chronic homeless that may be affected by substance abuse, mental health issues and even physical disability. The Housing First model is especially helpful with this group. Yet, Housing First requires a robust organization with excellent resources, and the model is not without controversy.
Also, after almost 15 years of war, the homeless population has swelled with veterans, who have a wide range of needs. Adding to this, most shelter directors mentioned that a lack of affordable housing contributes to the number of homeless in Corvallis. We may have entry level jobs, but the pay is not adequate to pay for housing in Corvallis.
There are four shelters in town. Community Outreach, Inc. (COI) has over 70 beds. Room at the Inn and Jackson Street Youth Shelter are quite a bit smaller. The former is a women’s shelter and the latter is for teens. The fourth organization is Corvallis Housing First (CHF), and not everyone is so happy with them.
What’s the Controversy?
Two years ago, CHF located a cold weather emergency shelter downtown. There is no sobriety requirement to stay at the shelter, and many that live and work in the area maintain that the shelter’s services attract homeless individuals from outside Corvallis. This is the so-called magnet effect. The sense is that some of these individuals are more aggressive and prone to commit crimes than our own community’s homeless population.
For instance, many downtown shopkeepers report finding human and other wastes in front of their businesses, loitering and aggressive panhandling – there have also been concerns about theft and vandalism. Safety concerns have also been raised. The police confirm that when the cold weather shelter is open, there is an increase in complaints and nuisance crimes.
Now, CHF is proposing a larger shelter that would be open year round rather than seasonally. The plan calls for a new building on their present site that would lease space to the Daytime Dropin Center and Stone Soup. The shelter will add 10 more men’s shelter beds to the current 40, and will incorporate the women’s shelter currently operating as Room at the Inn. Services would also be increased. The cost to build is estimated at $2.3 million. Construction is expected to begin in spring of 2016, with an opening date later that year.
There’s little doubt that the seasonal nature of both the men’s and women’s cold-weather shelters needs to change. Advocate staff have talked to several women who are forced to camp outdoors where they’re at risk for violence and sexual assault once the shelter closes. And Oregon’s cold weather continues long after the April 1 closure date.
Asked directly about concerns raised by the business community, Gina Vee answers that they should be rooting for the shelter’s success, suggesting that the problems merchants see now may worsen without somewhere for the homeless to go.
Inside the charitable community there are also concerns. For instance the Housing First model calls for housing everyone, regardless of mental health or drug and alcohol use: the assumption being that if you can house someone they will be in a better position to be helped. Many experts agree this can help the most severely chronically homeless, but others maintain that recently-sober individuals will be harmed by living near those who are still using alcohol. In some studies, the newly clean-and-sober actually said they would rather be homeless than live with people still using substances.
Kari Whitacre of Community Outreach shares another worry. The Housing First model requires a robust staffing structure and significant financial commitments that a town the size of Corvallis may not be prepared for. Even the director of Corvallis Housing First is concerned about their ability to help if our town will not commit to programs beyond the currently proposed shelter expansion.
Where Next? Lack of Permanent Housing
CHF’s planned shelter is far from a complete solution to the problem, as CHF leadership freely admits. Once people have been assessed at the shelter, many of them will need a place to go. Most will not be able to afford regular housing. What then? Vee says perhaps four people a year can be accommodated in the Benton Plaza low-income housing. CHF’s Partner’s Place apartments, which offer case management and require a commitment to lifestyle change but not sobriety, have 14 units. Around 20 people can be placed in Partner’s Place every year. But Vee says that each year there are from 45 to 60 people on the waiting list for those 20 spaces.
“We have a demand that’s way beyond anything we personally can do with our Housing First model,” says Vee.
So currently there is a 20-36 person gap between the permanent housing that exists and what the shelter needs. If the planned shelter in fact draws more homeless people, as the police suggest it may, there will be even more with no certainty of permanent housing for occupants.
Tiny Houses: Cheaper Options for Housing
Apartment- or dorm-style housing is not the only option for transitional homeless housing. Eugene’s Opportunity Village, founded in 2013, offers 29 unheated units 60 to 80 square feet in size. $200,000 in donated funds and materials built the tiny houses, along with shower, kitchen and restroom facilities on the one-acre camp. Residents govern themselves and have volunteered around the city. The camp has been successful and largely free of controversy. Eugene’s City Council recently voted to retain the development.
CHF volunteer and former Habitat for Humanity president Brad Smith sees the benefit of this scaled-back, affordable housing. “Partner’s Place is great, but if you have a hundred people you want to put into housing, you can’t afford it,” he says. Yet CHF has no definite plans to work towards an Opportunity Village-style project, and Smith adds that he sees the planned emergency shelter as the necessary “lynchpin” of the solution: “It’s definitely not a complete answer, but I see it as the core.”
Asked why her organization is not addressing these pressing needs now, either along with or instead of expanding the downtown shelter, Vee cites zoning issues and funding. Most neighborhood restrictions would outright prohibit a tiny house development. In a perfect world, Vee says she’d like 70 apartments for the families of the estimated 100 homeless students in 509j, 20 to 30 mental health and assisted living beds, and 40 tiny houses.
As to an Opportunity Village-style development here, one can already anticipate neighborhood groups rationalizing why such a project would not be appropriate in their own backyard.
Some Fair Assumptions
It does seem fair, even for some of its flaws, to assume the Housing First model can be especially helpful for the chronically homeless. Last year most of the nearly 170 residents of the men’s seasonal shelter were in the 35 to 57 age range, and Smith reports that around two-thirds of those men have been homeless for more than two years. Both Vee and Smith emphasize that many of these men are aging and have health problems that are exacerbated by their homelessness. Even if some residents may never be able to support themselves, as a community we need to consider the humanitarian aspect of providing a safe, warm place to sleep for people who otherwise could literally be dying on the streets.
Some would like to see this shelter elsewhere, but that begs the question of who would want it in their backyard. Kevin Dwyer, president at the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, has approached Vee about finding a different location for the expanded shelter. Vee replied that though CHF is open to the idea, over 25 alternative properties have already been considered. Expense, zoning, or location made each of these locations unworkable.
Vee also maintains that the so-called magnet effect, if it exists at all, is minimal.
However, Captain Dave Henslee of the Corvallis Police Department has said the following: “People are coming here just for our services that we offer in Corvallis. So we will see the population of homeless people increase. We are already seeing it increase.” Sergeant Joel Goodwin adds that he’s talked to people who have “come to the shelter in Corvallis because you are allowed in even if you’ve been drinking or using drugs. This has been since they first opened the first cold-weather shelter out on Western, we’ve seen this trend.”
The growth in the number of homeless can be seen just since last year: Lieutenant Cord Wood provides an update on Dec. 1. “I would say there has been an increase — we get more homeless-related issue reports today than we did a year ago,” he says.
Police concerns aside, the CHF plan may have location in its favor. It is often anticipated that such a shelter would be located in a downtown core near other services for the homeless. Additionally, CHF already owns the downtown property and their proposed plan complies with the zoning already in place for that parcel.
In other words, if this $2.3 million facility gets built, we can expect that it’ll probably be in the current downtown location. We can also expect increases in the homeless population and associated crime.
What Folks Aren’t Saying
What is possibly most striking are the questions and concerns not being aired.
As claims over the magnet effect rage on, has anyone asked, so what? Let’s accept the magnet effect for the sake of argument. Might we shoulder that as a community and chip in to help anyway, even at the cost of attracting some number of out-of-towners, even with some increased nuisance and even crime? By extension, despite all the furor, few of the people protesting the shelter are engaging in conversation about how to mitigate those concerns.
And then there is the question of where the homeless will go once they have spent their time at the emergency shelter. Whether or not the new CHF shelter is built, Corvallis is not presently meeting the needs of people who are ready for transitional housing. We’re also not meeting the needs of those who aren’t capable of long-term change.
Love or hate the downtown shelter, CHF does own the property and the proposed development complies with city zoning codes. That said, it is hard to disbelieve the police about the impacts the shelter is having and will likely have in the future. The shelter can’t be held accountable for the actions of everyone who appears to be homeless. On the other hand, local business owners may feel that the shelter isn’t taking responsibility for the behavior of people who may come to the shelter from out of town.
We should consider if downtown would be harmed more by the shelter than another location would be. But it’s also fair to note that the shelter may be doing businesses a favor by keeping the homeless off the streets at night. Vee is more blunt about the benefit during cold weather: “They’re not dying in front of your business.”
CHF has taken steps towards better communication: they hosted a forum and open house, though with only a few days’ notice. That said, they have been quite a bit more open with the press these last few months, and their director has spoken at panel discussions. There has been some mention of mediation efforts if a business calls a complaint into the shelter.
The police enhanced enforcement downtown earlier this year and incidents dropped significantly as a result. There are no current plans to reinstate this effort.
So, what will be next? Local officials are updating the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. CHF will likely move forward with their shelter plan; the community’s response though donations and volunteer hours remains to be seen.
Related research and stories and can be found at corvallisadvocate.com, search term: homeless