Analysis: Downtown Homeless Shelter, Kerfuffle and Mediation

homeless-man-face-featured-w740x493Communities are increasingly scrambling for ways to assist a now burgeoning homeless population, but sometimes these efforts cause problems of their own. Organizers for Citizens Protecting Corvallis say this is why they have lawyered-up to oppose plans for what is being called a mega-shelter downtown. Two weeks ago, the citizens group conducted its first public meeting with a standing-room-only crowd in attendance, and now County Commissioner Anne Schuster has offered to help mediate a solution.

Such mediation may be fruitful if the process has enough public input. In other words, a small committee of opposing interests working to come to a consensus sounds good on the surface, but without public meetings to gather opposing concerns, a material response to that, and another set of gatherings to gauge public acceptance of specific plans going forward, it is hard to envision a solution that gains lasting acceptance.  Also,  there is the group-think problem endemic to a small committee unchecked by the larger group they are serving.

It would be unfortunate to have a recurrence of that moment last year when the Downtown Corvallis Association rank-and-file were saying they were deeply against the shelter, while their board was publicly welcoming the expansion… awkward, right?

What Is Corvallis Housing First Proposing?
Corvallis Housing First (CHF) started operating a cold-weather emergency men’s homeless shelter at their current 4th Street location about three years ago and are now planning to increase their capacity from 40 beds to about 90 with a new building. They also intend to open year-round and offer services to both women and men.

Housing First is a model that is currently popular in the press and with funders. Employing robust and well-funded wraparound services,  this intervention has been successful with the chronically homeless that have a mental health issue, a subset of the homeless population that is particularly hard to help.

The Issues Being Raised
Housing First does not require sobriety. One study shows that recently sober respondents would prefer to stay on the street than in a shelter with clients that are drinking and using. Also, Housing First shelters have been shown to attract clients from outside the immediate area, and increases in crime have been observed. This is the so-called magnet effect.

The Corvallis Police Department reports increased crime in the shelter’s area since its opening. There have been incidents involving human waste and drinking and drugging; there have also been hands on middle school girls and increased violence. CPD believes area crime will increase once again if an expanded shelter is built.  Neighborhood residents report living in fear.

Press accounts concerning Housing First programs focus on larger communities where problems have escalated and the expenditures on wraparound services save money. There is some question about a smaller community, like Corvallis, spending limited funds in this way when that money may be more effective working with individuals needing help on a case-by-case basis.  Opponents also suggest that Corvallis already offers emergency shelters, that what is actually needed is permanent housing for those that are in need.

What’s Next?
Corvallis Housing First last told us they would likely build in 2016 and we now hear uncorroborated reports of delays. In any event, delay may be best.

Neither Corvallis Housing First nor the community as a whole has probably understood the impact of the current shelter on its neighbors, and even a number of the homeless worry about being less safe if the current plan goes forward. CHF could use some time to research how other shelters ameliorate their impact on neighbors.

 If plans are slowed down, all concerned would have time to work out a consensus, possibly something that could achieve broad-based support and longer term housing than is currently envisioned.