Big Changes in Homeless Services Coming

Big changes all around were announced, and in some cases hinted at, during last Thursday’s packed Homelessness Town Hall hosted by Corvallis City Club.

During the first of two panels, Catherine Mater, co-sponsor of the Petition to Restrict Location of Homeless Shelters, proposed her group would suspend their petition for six months, as well as raise funds to cover a third of a new shelter’s budget for a year, totaling $100,000.

Mater listed three conditions for the proposal. The first is that by 2017 Community Outreach Inc. (COI) take over emergency cold-weather shelter operations in place of Corvallis Housing First (CHF), the current provider. CHF had previously announced they would like to stop operating the emergency shelter so they can concentrate on permanent supportive housing.

COI says they are willing to step in and operate an emergency shelter, but their fundraising efforts are already stretched trying to meet the needs of their existing family clients.

Another condition from Mater’s group would have the City of Corvallis and Benton County governments pony up the remaining two-thirds of the needed funding for COI to take over. Their third condition is that the City Council work out emergency shelter zoning restrictions and ordinance proposals over the next six months.

Corvallis Housing First Executive Director Gregg Olson clarified that their cold-weather shelter will open Nov. 1 as usual this year if the need persisted.

Mater noted her group’s petition is not suggesting that emergency needs not be dealt with, that their intention is for a solution that works for everyone concerned. A Corvallis resident for over 40 years, she says that she hasn’t seen this much divisiveness and anger in the community since Hewlett-Packard moved to town, and wants it to stop.

Olson thinks that this shift in gears will also help solve issues of case management, which CHF is most criticized for now. “There is some case management that you can do in the shelter. But there is a lot more you can do with permanent supported housing,” he said.

Another announcement that came as a surprise to many attending was that the City is working with many organizations to provide a legal way for those that want to, to camp in their cars. Churches in the area are offering parking lot space and sanitation facilities to help make this work, and Love Inc. is working with the city to coordinate the shift. The lack of permitted car camping has been a source of contention for some time for our area’s homeless.

When asked, COI Executive Director Kari Whitacre disclosed that studies are showing that constricted resources among the middle class are anticipated to fuel a growing homelessness population. Olson from CHF added that chronic homelessness among the mentally ill will also continue to grow responsive to continued cuts in care since the 1980s.

The second panel included County Commissioner Anne Shuster, Mayor Biff Traber, and Oregon State Housing Integrator Kenny La Point. Both Traber and Schuster were described as uniquely committed to working on homelessness issues at the forum. Schuster outlined a number of successful programs from other areas that she is hoping to introduce into Benton County. Traber committed to taking Mater’s proposals to the City Council.

Prior forums on this topic have been tumultuous, with over 150 attendees—however, this one was described by many in the audience as far more respectful and broad-ranging.

The audience expressed some impatience at how slowly solutions are coming. Some audience members that had previously been homeless expressed gratitude for what services they’d been provided at various agencies, among them a grad student at OSU.

Another woman, identifying as formerly homeless, suggested that leaders try having forums in parks, where those currently homeless may be more likely to participate. All agreed this held possibility for generating positive ideas and outcomes.

By Hannah Darling