The temperature gauge on the dashboard of my car reads 47 degrees. My windshield fogs as the rain taps against the hood, and I wait to meet Shawn Collins outside of the old Hanson Tire Factory on Chapman Place. He’s the program manager for the Housing Opportunities Action Council, and he’s been tasked with making sure the men’s homeless community has shelter during the harshest part of the year.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be homeless in the winter. The cold air, the rain, the long nights; simply having a roof over your head would make all the difference in the world. Here it is, barely below 50 degrees, and I’m working up the courage just to get out of my car. But as I see him pull up to the building, I cross the parking lot to meet the man behind the project.
“Great weather isn’t it,” he jokes as we shake hands. “Come on in, let’s get out of the rain.”
He unlocks and holds the door open for me while I walk through. Wiping the rain from my brow, I’m relieved by the dry, warm air as I unzip my jacket. Many more will find warm relief and open doors here thanks to the HOAC.
A First Look at the New Shelter
Looking around, my footsteps break the silence, echoing off the walls of the still empty space around me. It’s the sound all buildings make when they’re under renovations. That echo will be gone November 1, which remains the target date to open the temporary cold-weather shelter. It’ll stay open until the end of March.
“As you can see, we’re still in the construction phase,” he explains as I look around.
The building is approximately 2,800 square feet, and it’s been rented out to other parties or used as storage space for several years. Devco Engineering currently owns the space, and according to Collins, they’ve been the best partner the HOAC could’ve asked for.
Before the building opens, it still needs drywall and electrical work, and a new furnace. Most of the work has been completed voluntarily, but these projects will have to be contracted out. It also needed new bathrooms, but the cost of those were taken care of by Devco.
“Devco has been fantastic. They really brought things together,” explains Collins, thankfully, as this project almost didn’t happen.
Devco isn’t charging them rent, either. The importance of that fact cannot be understated. When he says that they really came through, he means it.
Collins went on to explain the enthusiasm and hard work put forth by the volunteers themselves. Benton Habitat for Humanity has been responsible for the construction work thus far, a true testament to what’s possible when a community cares. But support isn’t always there.
Community Response to Homelessness
At the beginning of 2016, when the Housing First shelter found itself in legal trouble, the community as a whole was hurt in the process. People in the homeless community were faced with a troubling uncertainty, while the rest of the community – at least those having any semblance of compassion – were left feeling distraught.
Not only had the shelter closed, but it was forced to close as a result of a legal battle that ensued after some complained of a nuisance. Many of the complaints were regarding problems outside of the shelter’s control. To be clear, the homeless shelter attracted the homeless, and that was unsatisfactory to some.
“Some people don’t want to see homelessness, and some people don’t want to see the homeless. Those are two very different things,” says Collins as we chat about the past.
Since then, it’s been an uphill battle to secure a new location in time for winter. Homelessness in Corvallis has become a dirty word; people simply don’t want to address the problem, especially now. But ignoring the issue doesn’t solve it, and suing an organization devoted to helping those in need doesn’t help either.
Some citizens voice concerns over a growing population of local homeless. Whether that gives them the power to sue a shelter for trying to serve its purpose is no longer a question, apparently. Though, it does force us to figure out what to do. After all, wherever the shelter exists, it’s going to have neighbors.
Being Better Neighbors, On Both Sides
This year, the Corvallis men’s shelter seeks to be a good neighbor, and so far, they’ve done what they can to make sure nearby businesses know they care. Located next to the co-op’s south location, they’ve had productive conversations to make sure everyone’s comfortable with the new arrangements.
Collins also explained that they’ve extended morning hours, as well as increased volunteer and staff numbers, and the parking area will also be under surveillance. The new manager is Harry Reich, a long-time volunteer. Collins assured me that as a high school basketball referee, Reich can handle himself, and he has plenty of experience when it comes to this type of work.
The hardest part is finding the appropriate space, and most importantly, finding owners willing to rent the space out.
“The challenge is finding a building with conditional use possibilities, and there are limited parts of town that can do that,” explains Mayor Biff Traber. “With the current time cycles, we need an existing building.”
The time cycles are a whole other puzzle that needs solving. In fact, as soon as this new shelter opens its doors, meetings will take place to figure out what comes next. Although Devco has come through this year, the lease is up when it’s up, and they’ll need the building back.
“Starting in November, as soon as the place opens, we’ll be talking about ideas for next year,” says Collins. “People tend to get hung up on the fact that this is only a one-year solution, but it’s the cheapest and best solution we had.”
It’s true, this is the best solution that Collins and his team had, and it sort of just fell into their laps. They toyed with the idea of mobile housing, but that added transportation costs, not to mention the rent on the property they found to support it. Every option they weighed had its own challenges and financial woes, but Devco provided the answer.
Most of all, what Collins and HOAC could really use is support. Regardless of how we feel about homelessness, it’s there, and it’s a part of the community. We need to support the people and the organizations that take it upon themselves to create solutions when nobody else wants to.
“Some of these people are long-time Corvallis residents. It’s not that big of a step to go from homeowner to homeless,” Collins reflects as he looks around the space in progress. “I think we should take care of them. A lot of people need a second chance, and there are a lot of people willing to help.”
By Nick Stollings