Editorial: Homeless Shelter

Over 150 attending Advocate’s first CitySpeak event, addressing the cold weather location.

The city-wide debate over deciding on a fit location for this year’s men’s cold weather shelter has resurged, and with it comes an opportunity to shift our attention to those most directly impacted by local homelessness: the homeless themselves, and their neighbors. 

To some, the prospect of homelessness is unimaginable — human privileges often act to safeguard against the odds. For others, being homeless is a reality. For how long and what reasons depends on many variables, including how much a community is consensus-driven and action-oriented.

Just about everyone has an opinion on whether the cold weather shelter should be located downtown at the proposed 2nd Street location, however there is something we can all agree on: that Corvallis is a generous community which largely believes those living here deserve adequate care and shelter. 

Qualms aside, the shelter has to go somewhere, and the decision needs to be made soon. Which is why we’re urging city leaders to act decisively, while prompting them and the public to back up comprehensive research and analysis into issues of homelessness in Benton County. Though this would come with a high price, the findings could surely drive consensus in our community, and hopefully include more direct input from homeless folks themselves and their neighbors, from past to present.

Homelessness Rising?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a report that nation-wide homelessness increased by 0.07 percent in 2017, the first increase since 2010. Of 554,000 homeless, 193,000 had no access to a shelter of any kind.

Last year, the Oregon Housing and Community Services noted a 6 percent increase in homelessness in Oregon from 2015 to 2017. Some months prior, Corvallis’ League of Women Voters collected data that estimated roughly 800 to 1200 homeless folks were living in Corvallis each year. Data may be skewed, however, by the transitory nature of homelessness, especially given those unsheltered and thus unaccounted for.

Our inadequate mental health system has always been a major contributing factor to homelessness, and now the west coast is facing the added stressor of unaffordable housing. Corvallis is a perfect example, where the value of homes has gone up 5.5 percent over the last year alone, with a median home value of $348,500. Both the housing crisis and mental health system gaps are issues Corvallis must address full-on, if we ever plan to succeed in combating issues of homelessness and poverty in our community. 

Leadership Hits Pause
Concerns for a downtown shelter were raised and funding was ultimately withdrawn by Benton County Commissioners, following comments made by the neighbor of last year’s shelter, the First Alternative Co-Op in South Corvallis. Homeless Project Manager Shawn Collins was unaware of the impact the shelter was having at the Co-Op, including instances of theft and loitery, which contributed to county leaders pumping the breaks when considering a downtown location. Added pressures came from concerned business owners with properties near the proposed 2nd Street location.

A 2nd Street shelter does raise concerns from years past, when a 4th Street shelter was shutdown via lawsuit by business owner Charlie Ringo, due to ongoing disturbances such as trespassing; public intoxication, urination, and defecation; and aggressive panhandling and begging of neighboring business owners, employees, and customers. 

The shelter has since seen better management, under Collins’ leadership, as well as some success in treatment, including 17 homeless folks moving to permanent housing and seven getting drug and alcohol treatment at last year’s shelter.

What’s most important here is not letting the past get twisted with what could be. Instead of a fear-based response, citizens and leadership of Corvallis should take the opportunity to reflect on former shortcomings and successes in order to improve.

Solutions Cost
The men’s cold weather shelter grew from 40 to 50 beds last year, which looks great on paper but means we are essentially warehousing our homeless, instead of actually housing them. 

Ultimately, we’d like to see our city’s homeless transition quickly from a shelter to permanent supportive or transitional housing, which would additionally call for land use code changes. Placing a permanent shelter in any one neighborhood, especially one with so many beds and prolonged stay rates, raises long-term economic and public safety concerns for said neighborhood. Regardless of stay rates, law enforcement should work proactively with shelter and city personal in determining appropriate patrol protocol of neighboring grounds, instead of standard complaint-based protocol.

In years prior, neighborhoods near the cold weather shelter saw a rise in crime rates surrounding hours of operation. Moving to a 24/7 shelter, with added food provisions, could prove an asset instead of a liability to neighborhoods, possibly decreasing instances of harassment and loitering. One of the benefits of having a downtown shelter specifically, as told by Collins, would be the wraparound of resources and services, as well as integration and de-stigmatization of the homelessness community. 

Some have advocated for the re-enlistment of local churches that once volunteered temporary shelter, therefore moving the shelter throughout varying City wards over time. This may be most immediately actionable, but there are logistical considerations, such as the work required for coordinators.

Regardless of what actions are taken, research should be conducted into successful models in cities with similar population sizes to Corvallis. Mental health service gaps, housing, and homelessness should be studied comprehensively to find overarching gaps needed in deciding a plan of action. More than a men’s cold weather shelter, we need to address issues of homelessness at large – how our city’s funds and resources are used, and how we view and interact with the homeless. We should be asking ourselves, “How can we better empower and provide purpose to the homeless community, rather than temporary relief?”

We see knowledge as an opportunity for unity and growth. In the instance of homelessness, we may need a six-figure study and a couple year process to solve our city’s problems. A solution will almost certainly require a tax levy, needing support from citizens and county officials. Surely these problems wouldn’t dissolve overnight, but at least we’d gain proper insight and direction.

For now, as winter nears, we need all hands on deck in determining a safe, resourceful place for our city’s homeless, as well as their neighbors. For the men’s shelter, that may mean using the 2nd Street location in the interim.

Location aside, it is important to consider why interacting with the homeless can be a frightful or uncomfortable notion to some. Aside from unsafe or unsightly behaviors, which are unrepresentative of the homeless community at large, coming face to face with those without homes is the most blatant reminder of systemic gaps and inequality — that there’s no universal net for anyone falling on, or born into, hard times. The more money we make, the easier it becomes to create space between ourselves and the grim realities of our world. 

Instead of distance, do what you can to bridge the gap. Any endeavor to revive a highly stigmatized and deprived community can’t cater to any one portion of the community nor come from a place of righteousness. Tough decisions take compassion and compromise, and we hope our community, especially those in power, can focus and act decisively — and for the right reasons.

The Corvallis City Council will be taking comments, concerns, and proposals for alternative location sites for the men’s cold weather shelter at their regularly scheduled 6 pm meeting, July 2, at 400 NW Harrison Blvd. Arrive early for a seat or to get on the list of speakers. 

For more information on how to contact county officials with concerns or input, visit https://www.corvallisoregon.gov/mc/page/council-meetings.