Editorial: Corvallis Homelessness in a Time of National Disregard

So ritual it begs consideration, doors swing open November 1 for local homeless at Corvallis’ 2017 cold weather shelter – a changed location from years past and under new management, these services would not have happened this year without hard scramble from dedicated area advocates and leaders. Everyone involved would tell you how limited this current fix is, and at that, only temporary.

In short, it’s too small a bandage. 

One could argue all that’s happened is a once-polarizing downtown shelter is now simply replaced by the same thing, albeit less polarizing. The new shelter offers 40 lifesaving beds during the winter season, so did the old one.

Advocates term these shelters, harm reduction. Think of someone not marginalized, but so broken as to strike fear in others – their general loss of connection with support systems and society is complete. They will freeze to death if not sheltered for the night, so there’s the harm reduction.

The elephant, in these cases, is outside the room – the widening cracks in current society are more a national reality than a local construct, and there are going to be limits to what our community can accomplish against the widening abyss.

Statewide, Oregon’s mental health system is rated as one of the worst in the country by Mental Health America. Benton County, being relatively rural, is even less helpful with psychiatric services than the state’s larger urban areas. Mental health issues and substance dependency represents a large subset of homelessness.

Mental health aside, middle-class homelessness is now considered a thing. The tectonic, socio-economic shifts leading to this were anticipated, but there has been scant institutional or social preparation. Some advocates now talk about the cyclic poor’s understanding of the system being an advantage over the newly disenfranchised.

People are no longer falling between the cracks in our larger society, they are essentially being sucked into an ever-widening vortex, and getting out is harder still. We are no longer a society of second chances; apartment owners have been replaced by managers authorized to access your credit score, though disallowed to take a risk on someone fighting their way back. As for the onset of psychiatric distress, whole lives become untethered from family and friends while sitting on a waitlist for help – eventually, there are only case managers without the resources to turn things around.

Corvallis Polarized?
Real talk: if you have drop-in services by Central Park and the library reading room, those community assets are going to be affected. The phenomena is so common in communities building strong homeless services that there’s a term for it; it’s called the magnet effect. This effect brings homeless from surrounding communities into the serviced locale.

All the denials from prior Corvallis Housing First directors range between hollow and downright maliciously untrue, to concerned community members – making consensus building nearly impossible.

Importantly, the denials flew in the face of police records and Oregon State University research. Even late as this year, a League of Women Voters white paper on local homelessness tried in part to reassess the magnet effect in Corvallis, but concluded they could not find the data to do so.

Likewise, building homeless services can foist community-wide problems onto a single neighborhood like almost no other development, which is implicitly unfair. We are not talking the usual NIMBY-isms about parking and such – this results in needles where children play, and sometimes worse.

Pile on a community-wide condescension and villainization of the neighbors understandably voicing their freak-out, and you have all the makings for an unconstructive dialogue. 

So, what’s a Corvallisite to do?
In some ways, we all need to give one another a break. Mostly, homeless do not ask to be so, and those that are secure for the moment often live in conscious or subconscious fear of getting sucked between the cracks themselves, while even the confident wish they could figure out how to help. In truth, most everyone does care.

Our community, and we include the homeless as part of the whole, would do well to develop an impulse of empathy whenever it feels impending enmity. In some ways, like with so many currently paralyzing issues, our polarizing dialectic gets baked into the problem. 

There are some pragmatic steps that can be taken:

We have become shy setting expectations or even boundaries for our homeless citizens, as if demanding some very basic respect for one’s fellows and property is too much to ask. This lack of expectation is alienating and demoralizing for everyone concerned. As an aside, there are models putting the homeless to work, helping further foster community connection.

Finding which non-profit offers what is hard, Kari Whitacre at Community Outreach Inc. has talked about the community chipping in for a high visibility street front access point for services – a central hub that can connect people with the right organizations for their individual needs.

About half the 40 beds aforementioned almost certainly go to what professionals refer to as frequent flyers, many that are medically indigent, this according to Brad Smith of Corvallis Housing First, last year.

Offering these community members housing year-round may look expensive compared with current cost, until you realize the permanently housed can now be helped to federal and state benefits that will offset much of the cost. Most importantly, it’s the human thing to do.

This will not eliminate the need for some emergency sheltering and services. Community Outreach Inc. had proposed a scattered shelter concept last year, which would answer the need for a permanent location. This year’s new shelter is housed in a loaned building set for redevelopment next year.

Tighter licensing and zoning requirements for services and shelters would initially lessen impacts on community assets and neighborhoods – not only would they be fairer, but they would likely broaden support for community services over time as the polarization tamps down.

We need workforce housing for working lower incomes, and complaining about OSU’s student influx is not going fix the problem. This is where the NIMBYs probably need to be ignored. This is a social justice issue that can be helped with public or private partnerships to incentivize the required building.

About that bandage from earlier…
More properly, while we all appreciate The Little Dutch Boy, the stark truths are our larger free society has needed some re-engineering these last few decades, and here in Corvallis, it may be all we can do to get a life raft built.