Deaths Galvanize Homeless Debates

homeless tentProbably you are aware by now of the deaths of Kimberly Hakes and Michael Whipple, but if not, here are the facts. Hakes was found dead by the Willamette River little more than a week ago, having suffered head trauma in what is believed to be a murder. She was age 42 and had been homeless for many years. Whipple passed out after an evening of drinking in early January and died in the freezing overnight temperatures. He had been homeless in the past, but not at the time of his death; he was age 63.

Corvallis Reacts
Letters to The Advocate and posts elsewhere have run the gambit, but some themes have emerged.  One has been to blame the community itself for being what is seen as overly welcoming and permissive towards the homeless—there is frustration that we have attracted so many homeless from outside the area, that there are so many homeless encampments and so little enforcement and oversight.  Conversely, there are many who believe that not enough is being made available to the homeless.  There are also those who believe we should offer as much, or more, but change those offerings.

But in the instance of Hakes, even with an ongoing investigation not having concluded, we know she regularly accessed services at the drop-in center. Having been homeless for so many years she would have been aware of her risks as a homeless woman, yet she chose to camp rather than seek help from the women’s emergency shelter. Encampments of homeless individuals establish themselves, and over time are shut down by authorities only to reestablish themselves elsewhere.

In the instance of Whipple, Corvallis Housing First confirms a trailer had been available to him for some time prior to his death and was still his to use the night he died. He had struggled with alcohol use for many years.

They Did Not Fall Between the Cracks
These last few years have brought an assessment of a different kind to Corvallis as two schools of thought have emerged about how to help the homeless in our community.

The housing first model contends that lowering restrictions on drug and alcohol use for homeless clients seeking services attracts a client that historically has proved difficult to help, the chronically homeless. Once in the door, case managers would ideally work to accommodate the client as a means of harm reduction for both the client and the community. There have been some successes for the chronically homeless with this model, but it presents difficulties serving other types of clients and has been demonstrated to have a so-called “magnet effect” that we’ll discuss in a moment. Locally, this model is embraced by Corvallis Housing First; among other services, they run a downtown emergency men’s shelter.

The other model permits clients to seek emergency shelter while intoxicated, but insists on drug and alcohol restrictions after that if alcoholism or substance abuse is an issue. The impetus for this insistence is that sustainable change only occurs for people who willingly want to change. This model also contends that it is difficult for clients that are early in their recovery to mix with clients that may still be using drugs or alcohol. This model has demonstrated itself with many types of homelessness, but is more limited in its successes with the most chronically homeless. Locally, Community Outreach Inc. offers many services typical of the model.

All this said, Corvallis offers more safety nets than most cities its size. Both Hakes and Whipple had been longtime Corvallisites with residencies dating back before the current influx of transient homeless into town. Given the services they accessed and were aware of, it seems unlikely that either of their premature deaths can be ascribed to a lack of community help.

In the final analysis, we cannot know who is responsible for the Hakes murder unless the police investigation is successful. In other words, the only one responsible for Hakes’ death is her murderer.

An Elephant in the Room
Stepping away from these recent deaths, there appears to be community consensus for magnanimity toward the homeless population, but it is waning under the pressure of the magnet effect—a phenomenon in which a region’s transients learn of a community particularly accepting of the chronically homeless and migrate there.

Those that do migrate can be a particularly difficult group to help.

Corvallis Police are on record stating they have seen this increase, and this paper receives reports regularly. There has been increased crime; preteen and teenage girls report being sexually harassed, and many parents express concern it is no longer safe for children to use a number of area parks. Most recently, community concerns spurred a Tactical Action Plan that has shifted some police resources to Central Park. Similar expenditures were made last year for the whole of downtown.

In the debate on how to best help the homeless, some have tried to minimize this effect as a concern or blame it inaccurately on national trends, but this denial is undermining the public’s trust. One email to The Advocate even referred to the helping community as the homelessness business, and similar insinuations are becoming more common.

While these recent deaths can be seen as tangential to this debate, it is more the case that they may prove galvanizing. Going forward, it may be difficult for the helping community and area leaders to retain public support if they are not direct about the influx of transient homeless into Corvallis, and willing to offer plans complete with costs for Corvallisites who are becoming increasingly frustrated.

By Rob Goffins