Homelessness Looks Different to Kari Whitacre

Community Outreach Inc. (COI) and their various family shelters represent one of the only viable options for homeless families in both Linn and Benton counties, but they face a growing overflow issue that has no clear solution.

Homelessness remains a hot-button issue in Corvallis after years of essential standstill that have done little to truly help local homeless populations. As a result, shelters like COI’s Sunflower Family Shelter continue to face higher and higher intake numbers, leaving them unable to provide services to all the homeless families looking for support.

COI’s main family shelter, the Sunflower Family Shelter has capacity for 11 homeless families at any given time. They provide families with a small studio apartment-like space, food and dining areas, help with job searches and with finding permanent housing, and more. If this area is full, as it often finds itself these days, families who would otherwise qualify for this shelter are turned instead towards COI’s emergency shelter, which can only house a total of 20 people. The emergency shelter provides people a place to sleep at night, with a mat on the floor, emergency food and shower, and little else.

Kari Whitacre, executive director of COI, says building more or bigger shelters is not a fix worth investing in and that more needs to be done for our homeless population.

“This is a conversation we’ve been having with folks over at Corvallis Housing First,” Whitacre said. “We can build that mega shelter, and we’ll fill it. And then we’ll build another shelter and we’ll fill that. The solution isn’t building more shelters, the solution is creating better systems and working towards self-sufficiency in a way that is helpful to the families.”

One of the systems that Whitacre spotlighted as a solution for overflow and the greater homelessness issue was the availability of housing, noting that there are not enough affordable housing options for families living on either public assistance or low wage work.

“What we really need is access to more supportive housing for families,” Whitacre stated, “so that we can transition people out of the shelter and into housing quicker, and then we can get those overflow folks up off the floor.”

While Whitacre did make the call for donations of any kind, particularly for things you may not think of (feminine hygiene products, diapers, etc.), she noted that the community needs to do more to help fight against the demonizing of the label of “homeless.”

“I feel like we’re always in this big battle when we talk about the shelter downtown, and how the homeless are ruining our downtown. The homeless are very much not ruining our downtown. A small token of people who are choosing not to be good citizens who may or may not be homeless are ruining our downtown. You’re mislabeling the behavior, which in turn desensitizes people to homeless families and youth who are working really hard to get their lives back on track. They need a shot at success.”

By Nathan Hermanson

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