By Dave DeLuca
First, the alphabet soup part, the Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition (CHSC) is re-monikering as Corvallis Housing First (CHF) and beyond that, significantly slowing their plans. Just as significant, Executive Director Gina Vee has become quite accessible to the press as of late; in the past week she’s talked with both the Gazette-Times and The Advocate. Her interview with us was extensive and open; some of the group’s board members also made themselves available.
Vee reports that plans for a larger scale year-round facility to replace the current cold weather shelter on 4th Street will probably not take place next year, that the time horizon is longer now. For instance, the group is working on a more exacting proposal and after that, there will be the need for an extensive capital campaign as the new facility may require up to $2.5 million in building costs. Think in the three-year range.
The rebrand as Corvallis Housing First would seem to squarely align CHF with the nationwide trend of approaching homelessness with what has become known as the Housing First model. The theory is that regardless of factors such as drug or alcohol use, or mental illness, it is preferable to house clients first as a means of more effectively providing interventions over time. There is good evidence that these programs are successful with some demographics that are especially difficult to help otherwise.
Conversely, current community concerns in Corvallis include reports from police that crime has increased each winter with the opening of the current cold weather shelter and that many homeless say they come from out of state for services that are more available in Corvallis than elsewhere. There are police personnel who believe a larger scale shelter would increase crime, some of it violent. That said, the police are publicly supportive of the shelter and cite that it decreases difficulties associated with homeless camps.
Downtown business owners reported an increase in aggressive panhandling and human waste in front of their business with the current CHF shelter. Vee responded directly to some of these concerns, saying that most of the aggressive panhandlers in the neighborhood are much younger than the 40-year-old male demographic that takes advantage of the shelter’s services. She also added that in many cases they appear to be better off financially, as well.
Concerning the magnet effect, CHF board chair Gregg Olson pointed out that much of the homeless population is transient, and bound to be from other areas. Furthermore, he said that if Corvallis were truly a magnet for the homeless, a rise would be seen over a longer period of time. In any case, he said counting the homeless in this city, or any other, is a challenge that has yet to be undertaken with any degree of accuracy.
There has been some community concern about the shelter’s standards regarding sobriety. Vee noted that drugs and alcohol are not permitted in the shelter, and told the Gazette-Times that CHF is a “dry” shelter. However, most definitions would classify CHF as “wet” because sobriety is not required for services. Semantics aside, Vee is clear that she does not permit drugs or alcohol in the shelter, but that like many shelters (including COI), they offer services to individuals without a requirement for sobriety so long as they behave appropriately at the shelter.
CHF is straightforward about alcohol being passed to people inside the cold weather shelter last year, and they’ve relocated the outside smoking section in preparation for this winter. Last year, the section was out of the sight lines of staff members, allowing easy opportunities for alcohol to be passed into the shelter from outside the fence. The loophole, so to speak, has been closed. Staff this winter will be better able to monitor suspicious behavior.
As to the longer term future, the shelter project is currently in the research stage. Three volunteer task forces are meeting to hammer out all the details of the potential building. They are peopled by a diversity of professionals in the fields of architecture, government, religion, law enforcement, medicine, and many more. They aren’t just deciding how big to make the building, but what services to offer within it. It’s slower, but Olson wants to make sure that they get it right. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel or make expensive mistakes,” he said.
Continuing, Olson added, “We are a work in progress, but we are progressing.” Promisingly, the group has become quite a bit more open with the press. Also, tentative plans are in place to organize a public forum so Corvallis as a whole may see their vision.