Corvallis City Club Homeless Panel

City Club of Corvallis hosted a panel discussion at the Corvallis Public Library last Thursday. Two panels, one with local shelter directors and one with county and city officials, answered questions before a packed audience on what the future might hold for our homeless community. The tone of the evening was not entirely negative, but optimistic may be a stretch.

The first panel included Kari Whitacre, Executive Director of Community Outreach Incorporated and Corvallis Housing First President of the Board of Directors, Brad Smith. Both organizations having recently closed shelters.

COI has been serving homeless for nearly 47 years with a transitional housing model. Whitacre explained that the decision to close their emergency family shelter was purely fiscal.

“We went into this budget year looking at an increase in minimum wage that is going to cost our agency an additional $15,000 on top of the $10,000 that it cost us last year and so our expenses went up,” she said. 

“We lost funding from the City of Corvallis, we lost funding from the Federal Government in terms of our HUD funding, and we also lost funding from the DHS, the Department of Human Services.”

“We lose a place for annually 79 families including 114 adults and 116 children to sleep next year out of the elements – and the elements aren’t just when it’s cold, it’s year-round,” she added.

CHF, who has served the community for 11 seasons, closed doors to their shelter on 4th street under different circumstances. 

“It’s actually a fairly simple answer for a somewhat more complex question, we ended up ultimately closing the shelter because we got sued…It’s really as simple as that,” said Smith.

“The essence of the lawsuit, and I can share this with you because it’s all public record, was the underlying assumption that the shelter was somehow responsible for the actions of all individuals who used the shelter overnight.”

The second panel included Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber, Benton County Commissioner Anne Schuster, and Housing Opportunities Action Council Program Manager Shawn Collins speaking on local government efforts.

“There is a strong possibility that there will not be a men’s [emergency] shelter this winter,” Traber said.

“What are the 3 key elements? It’s the location, an organization to operate it – you heard some of the discussion earlier about one of the challenges with organizations to operate it, and the experienced organization in town is not operating it and is not intending to – and then finally money,” Traber continued.

Commissioner Schuster said, “One of the county’s issues is that we have to look at the whole county and not just Corvallis. But, to get something for this year we need a location, a building, we need somebody to operate it, and we need money, so not easy obstacles to overcome.”

“The location is very challenging, finding a location that both meets the needs of being able to operate a shelter and meets the needs of the community around that,” said Collins. “It’s very easy to say no to these things, it can be very hard to say ‘yes please put it in my backyard’,” he continued.

Following the discussions, the audience asked panelists questions and made comments. The microphone was taken by students, community members, and local homeless alike. Despite the overwhelmingly supportive group in attendance, some questions remained, including where will the money and location come from, can we manage wrap-around services, and can how badly does Corvallis want to find a solution to homelessness?

By Anthony Vitale