Police and Businesses React to Murky Homeless Plan

By Bethany Carlson and Dave DeLuca

policeofficerSince The Advocate’s July 17 coverage of plans for a large-scale homeless shelter expansion downtown, the business community has responded further, and new information has become available from the police department.

The Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition’s plan to build a larger permanent shelter at its current SW 4th Street location has drawn criticism from neighboring businesses. The police department still publicly supports the shelter, but they also express serious reservations. Both parties are worried that the “wet shelter” aspect of the plan, which doesn’t require that occupants be drug- or alcohol-free, will draw homeless from other communities and worsen downtown misdemeanor crime.

Now, there’s an indication from the police that violent crimes associated with the current shelter are also on the rise, and they express other new concerns as well. Meanwhile, the coalition refuses to answer questions about the shelter, so the community can only speculate about their plans.

Police: Planned Shelter Will Draw More Homeless, Increase Crime
When it comes to dealing with downtown issues, Captain Dave Henslee and Sergeant Joel Goodwin of the Corvallis Police Department are on the front lines. Henslee says that the department supports the coalition’s plan to fill the need for homeless resources. The significant costs of cleaning up homeless camps are also reduced when the current seasonal shelter is open. However, he says that the department notices an increase in nuisance crimes such as littering, human waste problems, shoplifting, and some violent crimes. Henslee doesn’t have exact numbers, but feels safe saying that in the past, “We’ll see [complaints] 10 times more when the shelter is in operation.”

Goodwin emphasizes that probably 90 percent of the people staying at the shelter aren’t causing any problems, “but it seems reasonable to extrapolate that if we have a small shelter and it’s 10 percent, then a large shelter would also have 10 percent, so that might be a significant increase as well.”

Henslee notes that the coalition was supportive of the TAP-9 police misdemeanor crackdown this spring, and advised people staying at the shelter of the action plan. “They were really good about doing that, and we asked them to continue to educate their clientele about ways to stay out of trouble,” he said. “They need to be much more aggressive and continue to be aggressive about telling their clients: Here’s the social expectations of the community you belong to; live up to that.”

But even this may not be enough to keep the occupants of a wet shelter from creating problems. Henslee added, “As people consume alcohol and they consume drugs, they have relaxed inhibitions and sometimes they just don’t care. And I think that’s going to continue to be our challenge as we progress into the future, with it being a facility that doesn’t have restrictions on alcohol and drug use.”

Both Henslee and Goodwin would like to see more skills training and treatment options available at the shelter, but they aren’t sure the residents would necessarily use those resources. Meanwhile, Community Outreach draws a different crowd. “The people that go to COI are truly trying to change their situation,” Henslee said. “We see the clientele that use the facilities downtown, at the drop-in center or the homeless shelter, aren’t necessarily interested in changing their lifestyle. They’re just interested in having a place to sleep and something to eat. So I think along with that lifestyle we tend to see increased crime and increased negative behaviors, so I don’t know that the structure of the shelter is as positive as the structure of Community Outreach.”

Will the shelter act as a magnet for homeless from other towns? “That is absolutely true,” Henslee said. “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.” He says over the last year police have talked to homeless people from Seattle and California who came here for the resources.

“In the conversations I’ve had with people, they 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,” Goodwin added.

“As the shelter grows, and in the future if the shelter expands, the [homeless] population will grow and expand to meet that. They will use every bit of that resource. I don’t know what you would do to reduce that,” Henslee said. He thinks that businesses and downtown residents will notice what seems like a far higher amount of crime and homelessness, because the new shelter will centralize services which were previously spread out over the community.

Criticism from Corvallis’ Other Shelter
CHSC shouldn’t be confused with the other major player in Corvallis’ fight against homelessness, Community Outreach Inc. COI Executive Director Kari Whitacre has said of the CHSC shelter, “The proposed 4th Street Shelter is an outdated model that isn’t in the best interest of the client or the community.” COI provides “wrap-around services” to homeless families to help them get back on their feet. Such services are not offered at the Men’s Cold Weather Shelter open from November to March, and it’s unclear if the new shelter will provide them. “We now know on a federal and state level that the best way to serve those experiencing chronic homelessness is through permanent support housing,” Whitacre continued.

Whitacre also added, “The best way that we can help them is not an emergency cold weather shelter. The best way that we can help them is to give them a permanent house, room, apartment, and some intensive case management to meet their needs… Our community would benefit. Our systems would benefit. Our jails, our hospitals. It would ultimately save our community money.”

Whitacre finished with a stark observation.

“We can’t afford to fund both shelters. We live in an incredibly generous community. But we can’t fund two million-dollar-a-year shelters.”

woman-arrestedDCA Board Gives Go-Ahead…
The Downtown Corvallis Association, an organization primarily for downtown business owners, has as its mission statement “To improve and promote the economic, aesthetic, and cultural vitality of Downtown Corvallis as a regional center.” Downtown Corvallis Association board members expressed support for the coalition’s plan.

“We see it as an opportunity to partner, to welcome somebody into the DCA district,” said board member John Semadeni. He indicated that the DCA will welcome the shelter as they would any other business, and will wait for problems to manifest themselves after the shelter is built. “We’re going to let the plan play out,” Semadeni continued. He doesn’t feel that it’s the DCA’s place to dig any further into CHSC’s plans.

…While Local Business Owners Object
A large majority of the business owners we spoke with, who are DCA members, told a very different story. As reported in the July 17 coverage, (www.corvallisadvocate.com/2014/wait-downtown-businesses-say-what/), they say the current drop-in shelter has had a tremendous impact on downtown livability. “No rules and regulations over there [at the shelter] means more drunks over here,” said a downtown employee who preferred to remain anonymous. “Property values will plummet. If it goes full time, and the accountability stays the same, we’ll probably have to close.”

Comments from Peter Ball, Downtown Corvallis Association member and president of Corvallis Insurance Services, further highlight the rift between the DCA board’s optimistic wait-and-see approach and the opinions of DCA members. “It would be akin to the Chamber of Commerce taking a position on something that many of their members don’t support,” Ball said. Meanwhile, business owners may be afraid to publicly voice their objections to the shelter: “People are so afraid they may offend somebody who supports the shelter [who then] won’t frequent their business.”

Ball has seen negative effects from the seasonal drop-in shelter at his nearby business locations. “We’ve had two attempted break-ins and one break-in. I’ve watched them try to break into property I own next door,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where there are parts of town, times of day you don’t want to be around.”

The coalition’s communication has been poor, says Ball: “They haven’t been open about it. There was no notification of neighbors as far as I know, and I own three pieces of property on that same block.”

“As a permanent shelter, it’s just going to be a super-magnet, and I contend that there’s not a place for that in downtown Corvallis,” he concluded. “I think that it’s a bad idea, to deal with a bad situation. I think that the way they’re going about it is enabling too much.”

Coalition’s Silence Creates Doubt
The coalition has declined multiple attempts by Advocate staff to clarify features of the existing plan. Gina Vee, executive director of the coalition, has not amended her last comment, “We don’t have a plan—I mean, it’s not a plan to be shared. [There’s] nothing we want to go public.”

Interviews with downtown business owners found that none had seen communication from the coalition about their plan.

Henslee expresses concern that the coalition hasn’t explained their plan for the shelter more clearly. “I would like to see maybe there be more openness about what the plan is, what the intent is, [and] educate the community better,” he said. “It forces the community to make an uneducated opinion, and that may not be accurate, but without information what are you going to do?”