New Homeless Shelter, New Problem?

By Bethany Carlson

Homeless5Downtown cores are evolving things. We in Corvallis have witnessed this firsthand as crowds of shoppers and diners have shifted east towards the river in the last decade, and shadows are now cast from development of more floors, one on top of another. Endemic to this is controversy, which also casts a shadow—quite often past the blocks of the core and into the character of the community as a whole.

The next tectonic shift has in fact already started to play itself out; there has always been a homeless population downtown, but some perceive increased numbers as of late, and that this new group is more aggressive and destructive. Things came to a head this spring as Corvallis police, at the behest of downtown homeowners and business people, conducted a crackdown in the core and bulldozed a homeless camp—crime decreased and the homeless population started to organize and protest to the extent that they could, because they believed they were being singled out.

Fast-forward to the present: there’s a plan on the table to build a 100-bed homeless shelter without any sobriety requirements; the Downtown Corvallis Association leadership which had expressed concerns is suddenly and somewhat oddly on board—even as its rank-and-file business membership isn’t; and the group planning the shelter is avoiding sharing its plans publicly. That said, it’s surprising what can be found out with some digging.

The Plan
The Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition (CHSC) currently operates Partner’s Place, a housing program that assigns a caseworker to residents. Mayor Julie Manning, who has been involved with homelessness issues for some time, reports that the support services currently offered by the shelter will be available at the new shelter the group is planning. These services currently include a part-time mental health professional, employment opportunities, and help with obtaining IDs. The group also operates a cold weather drop-in shelter over the winter.

cautionsidebarNow, the CHSC plan is for a new shelter to be built on the location of its current drop-in shelter between the spring and late fall of 2015. Officials at the city Planning Department reported that there had been no communication from the Coalition since the summer of 2013, and a final architectural plan has not yet been submitted for approval. Mayor Manning told us that the Coalition has purchased the property in question, where the temporary shelter has been located. The property is zoned in a way that will permit a permanent shelter, though variances may be required. Stone Soup and the drop-in shelter will co-locate in the building, along with a permanent dormitory-style shelter on the top two floors. The shelter, as aforementioned, is expected to be able to hold up to 100 people. There will apparently not be any requirements for sobriety.

CHSC Track Record, Increased Crime & Police Acceptance
Many downtown homeowners and business people feel the shelter currently run by CHSC has attracted homeless from outside the area, and that this newer group is more aggressive and destructive. They are concerned that the plans for the new facility will exacerbate matters, acting like a magnet for homeless from other communities.

Aleita Hass-Holcombe, board chair for the CHSC, is no stranger to the magnet question. She says, “We’re not going to attract more,” and “It’s not going to be any five-star homeless shelter. It’s not like this is a mecca for homeless [people].” She responds to detractors who may worry “‘What if someone comes down from Salem?’ Well, hello—it’s okay,” continuing, “What is wrong with helping people?”

HomelesswomanOn the other hand, Captain Dave Henslee of the police department says, “When the [current CHSC seasonal] shelter is in operation we tend to see an increase in violations involving alcohol (open container), litter, trespass, and human waste. We also receive more complaints from community members about illegal and threatening behaviors.” Henslee adds that this is accompanied by a reduction in illegal camping in the downtown area.

This all said, other communities have been through this. For instance, Framingham, Massachusetts hosted a shelter that reportedly housed more people from out of town than it did local homeless. When the wet shelter closed in 2006, downtown crime reduced by nearly 27 percent compared with an equivalent 11-month period while the shelter was still in operation. The crimes which were reduced included property destruction, breaking and entering, and car theft.

Police Chief Jon Sassaman didn’t want to speculate about how the new shelter might affect downtown, saying “We’ll just have to see what happens.” He said that many of the people who use community services or might use the shelter aren’t causing problems, while acknowledging that community members may be eager to blame the shelter. For instance, Sassaman points to the issues of drunk college students engaging in inappropriate behavior downtown: “We don’t say that’s a college student problem,” and he continues, “In the same way that we don’t look at it like the homeless shelter is the problem.” Henslee likewise declined to speculate about the effects the new permanent shelter might have.

On balance, one could conclude the good accomplished may outweigh the negatives. However, the current shelter does seem to increase some crimes, and the new one quite probably could. One answer could be to increase crackdowns such as the one some months back, but Corvallis police are on record saying the finances are not likely there to do that. However, with the tax levy having now passed, the police department has been able to hire more officers, with a community livability team in the works.

Theory vs. Practice… and CHSC Murkiness
The causes vary, but a fair majority of homelessness is divided between women and teens escaping violence, the economically disadvantaged, veterans, mentally ill men and women, and chronic substance abusers—these last two groups turn out to be especially hard to help, as they do not always have the capacity to work in their own self-interest.

Playing into the current controversy is a CHSC attempt to bring a model of intervention to Corvallis that has demonstrated some efficacy with chronic alcoholics (a group that is especially difficult to treat and that tends to resign itself to homelessness). Referred to as Housing First, the model theorizes that you must first house an individual if an intervention is to be successful, or is even to take place—and that such an intervention must be the choice of the individual, not a requirement.

For this reason, it is not uncommon to find alcohol openly present in shelters running on the Housing First model, a policy that differs from many traditionally run shelters. The focus is on making the client a viable resident or tenant, which may or may not require a change in relation to substance abuse.

In practice, Seattle and other cities have had success with this model, but the requirements and finances to make it work may be difficult for a town the size of Corvallis. For instance, Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, which co-ordinates a successful Housing First program, lists principles of the Housing First model on their website. They emphasize that “The provider is obligated to bring robust support services to the housing… [and] must be prepared to support resident commitments to recovery.” Their program, and most other Housing First programs cited in studies claiming success, feature 24/7 support staff, a high ratio of caseworkers to residents, and a comprehensive addiction treatment program.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACHSC claims its current Partners Place operation is based on the Housing First model, but it is also the case that it does not offer some of the features usually associated with the model. There’s no mention on the Coalition website of substance treatment or round-the-clock supervision or support.

Attempts to seek clarity from Executive Director Gina Vee, the one key employee paid by CHSC, went like this: when finally reached by phone after weeks of attempts, she hung up the phone. After more attempts she commented, “We don’t have a plan—I mean, it’s not a plan to be shared. [There’s] nothing we want to go public,” adding that The Advocate will receive a press release once there is a plan. She then hung up. Several attempts to meet with Vee at the Coalition’s downtown office during their posted hours found no one at the office.

Conversely, Hass-Holcombe is frank concerning a lack of services, saying, “We’d love to have a detox center, but that’s not happening with us.” Minutes from a meeting of the Homelessness Oversight Committee suggest that CHSC Executive Director Gina Vee and the committee in general are aware of the urgent need for a detox center.

Talking with Benton County Commissioner Jay Dixon did offer some clarity. He reports that “There are no hard plans yet” for a detox center, adding that such a center would probably include Linn County and possibly Lincoln County as well. When asked if the Coalition had plans to wait to open the shelter until a treatment center was open, he replied, “In our conversations with [the Coalition], they have not tied those two together.”

“The proposed 4th Street shelter is an outdated model that isn’t in the best interest of the client or the community.” This blunt comment came from Community Outreach, Inc.’s executive director, Kari Whitacre. While a supporter of Housing First programs, she thinks that an emergency shelter like the one planned on 4th Street is at best a stop-gap measure that won’t have ongoing success. Instead, she emphasizes the need for permanent apartment-style housing and intensive case management. COI’s successful work will be profiled in upcoming weeks.

It’s worth pointing out that both Whitacre and Vee of the Coalition are making the decent but not astronomical sum of less than $60,000 a year, for work that is doubtless grueling. Whitacre says that while Corvallis is a generous community, “We can’t afford to fund both shelters. We as a community are going to have to pick between funding a shelter like Community Outreach and funding a shelter like the 4th Street shelter.”

Then there is the downside to even the Housing First model. Housing is clearly an important part of a solution to homelessness, but in a Birmingham, Alabama study of clean and sober housing residents, they objected to living with a drug-using control group, reportedly saying that they’d rather live on the street again than with neighbors who were using drugs. There are certainly a large number of homeless people in Corvallis who don’t abuse drugs or alcohol, and it is questionable whether they would even want to live permanently in a place where they will be exposed to drug and alcohol use.

On Balance
positivevoteThe Housing First model has demonstrated itself able to serve a homeless population that is traditionally difficult to help, but it does come with caveats. For instance, it is problematic for clean and sober homeless clients, especially if they are in recovery. Also, there appears to be an associated increase in misdemeanor crime, as has been our experience in Corvallis—what effect the future shelter will have is uncertain.

This is an expensive model and CHSC has less than $1 million in assets, and contributions last year of slightly less than $250,000. It is difficult to assess its actual ability to deliver on the rigors of a Housing First model, and their lack of transparency makes veracity an issue. The current reporting does not show adequate partnerships with health providers or other community services at this time, which is of course subject to change.

There is no assessment concerning the viability of Corvallis’ Community Outreach program, which may be better for clean and sober homeless, in an environment where two organizations of similar missions must coexist and seek funds.

Increased crime is a concern for downtown businesspeople, most of whom are operating small locally owned businesses that employ many Corvallisites.

The nightmare, of course, would be a shelter consisting of up to 100 homeless people who have no sobriety requirements placed on them, no drug treatment options available, and not enough support from the shelter itself.

If CHSC is to turn around the current sentiments downtown, transparency and even preemptive public information would help. Openness might even garner them support beyond their expectations. But the current state of murkiness is very concerning.