We’ll keep it real: the official conversation surrounding the location of our next cold weather homeless shelter has become a complete and total sh*tshow. We need to figure this thing out and soon, and we need all hands on deck. The public is invited to question City and County officials at 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 26, at the Corvallis-Benton County Library.
Panelists include Mayor Biff Traber, County Commissioner Anne Schuster, and Housing Opportunities Action Coalition Manager Shawn Collins. As June’s iteration of The Advocate’s Cityspeak series, the event is free for all attendees, who are welcome to pose their comments and concerns directly, to aforementioned city leaders.
Rumors have swirled about various locations and plans for this winter’s men’s cold weather emergency shelter, and proposals to co-locate other homeless services with the facility, but what may be most striking is how long there has been uncertainty and a broken down dialogue in our neighborhood.
WE HAVE A LOCATION — Wait, About That
Historically, Corvallis has had a difficult time locating cold weather sheltering for men, and the discussion heats up with the current climate. The Corvallis Services Center building at Second Street and Western has been the top contender for this winter’s men’s cold weather shelter, and has enjoyed support from homeless advocates in Corvallis. However, some — particularly downtown business owners and employees — are against this location.
A Corvallis City Council meeting on June 4 saw public comment from those both for and opposed to the Second Street location. Some business owners expressed concern that a large homeless population in the downtown area would deter customers. An area property owner told the council of finding used hypodermic needles at his property, and another complained of squatters in the parking garage of his hotel using his electrical outlets to charge electronics. Another young woman said this:
“The Corvallis Services Center stands ready to do some of the most crucial work to help fight poverty, and there are certain people in this community who would stop that out of their own discomfort, because they think the poor are unsightly and bad for business.”
Then and Now
The men’s cold weather shelter offers 40-50 beds from November through March, and is managed by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The Second Street location is large, and would allow for additional services: it’s envisioned Stone Soup and the Daytime Drop-in Center would relocate to the site, also. Other services would be offered as well, including the involvement of the Jail Diversion Program, Veterans Services, Samaritan, and the Benton County Health and Mental Health Departments.
Many homeless people suffer from untreated mental illnesses, including drug and alcohol addiction; this can create strain on the community surrounding homeless services. Opponents of the Second Street location cite difficulties with a previous shelter, run by Corvallis Housing First, that was located a few blocks away on Fourth Street. It was shut down in 2016 by CHF as a means of settling a lawsuit from the shelter’s neighbors.
The following year, in a deal largely brokered by City officials, the UUF assumed management of the shelter at a vacated Hanson’s Tire Factory facility in South Corvallis, and a number of mitigations were enacted to minimize community impacts. A steering committee was created that included representatives from the surrounding area, most notably from the nearby First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op. The shelter and the Co-op coordinated to design shelter policies aimed at minimizing impact on the store. In response to the Co-op’s concerns, the shelter shifted hours, added an outside port-a-potty, moved the entrance, and added security cameras. The shelter was seen by many as a shining success, both in terms of community relations and achieving its primary objective. 17 homeless people were moved into permanent housing, and seven went to treatment for drug and alcohol problems.
In early June, this narrative was challenged. First Alternative released a statement describing problems like theft and loss of business that were previously unknown to the community and shelter management. These revelations even caused County Commissioner and co-chair of the Housing Opportunities Action Council, Anne Schuster, to start publicly questioning the notion of a downtown shelter. Later that week, the Benton County Board of Commissioners unanimously withdrew the county’s $60,000 funding match for this year’s cold weather shelter, as they will not support the Second Street location.
On learning of the First Alternative’s statement, Collins said, “We expressed real sadness when we learned that we didn’t know more of the details of the kind of challenges that they were facing. I think we would’ve been able to make a real difference had we known.”
A River Between Us
Some opponents of the Second Street shelter location are actively pursuing other options to address the issue of homelessness. Corvallis resident and civil engineer Catherine Mater is currently developing a proposal to find the cold weather shelter, Stone Soup, and the Drop-in Center a permanent home at the city-owned Flomatcher industrial site, located just over the Van Buren Bridge off of SE Ireland Lane. If her proposal is accepted, the site would not be ready until winter of next year, so a temporary shelter would be required for 2018-19. Some local business and property owners are on board with Mater in suggesting the Flomatcher site.
Mater sees many desirable aspects in using the Flomatcher site to provide services for the homeless community. The building already has septic, power, a large parking lot to accommodate buses, and is adjacent to city-owned farmland. Mater envisions a community garden, and maybe even an area for clients’ dogs.
As part of her proposal, Mater is evaluating the site for deficiencies that must be addressed and corrected before it is suitable for use. The site’s accessibility has been brought into question; she wants to build a pedestrian and bike path to make access possible without walking along the side of the highway. Some additional water infrastructure would also be required, as well as a thorough cleanup and remodel of the building and property. Mater would also like to see an increased police budget to help Corvallis Police Department patrol the area. She is working on a price structure for the project, and plans to have that information available in the coming days.
“We’re very sincere about finding a permanent solution for Corvallis so we don’t have to go through this every year. It just tears the community apart,” said Mater. “I’m ready to be on board with everybody and move in the right direction, be productive, and solve the problem.”
Not everyone thinks the Flomatcher site is a viable option. Shawn Collins still prefers the CSC location on Second Street to Flomatcher.
It concerns him that accessing the Flomatcher site from Corvallis requires crossing a highway, which is not used to seeing pedestrian traffic. Foot travel from First Street and Washington to the site takes an able-bodied adult who isn’t carrying all of their earthly possessions about 25 minutes. Collins explained that many homeless people are physically disabled, and some clients of Stone Soup and the Drop-in Center have children, which could make traveling to the site difficult and risky.
Collins also isn’t enthused about the building’s lack of potable water and fire sprinklers, or the municipal code challenges that might arise from the building’s location in Linn County. This might make it difficult to provide services like potable water to this site, but again, Catherine Mater is a civil engineer.
Some in the community have gone on record saying that locating these services across the river presents a moral quandary. Many feel that the Flomatcher proposal is an attempt to sweep the problem of homelessness under the rug so that the affluent of Corvallis don’t have to see or deal with it anymore.
Shawn Collins thinks that it is important for the homeless to feel like they belong to a community, and isolating them may be harmful. He thinks that the Second Street location will provide a valuable opportunity for the homeless to integrate into the community, giving them a better chance to escape the crushing poverty that they are experiencing.
“We need to engage effectively with those in need. We need to protect and foster a vibrant and thriving downtown,” says Collins. “Wherever possible, we need to find ways to bridge the gaps, and build partnerships to both improve the conditions of those experiencing homelessness, and engage them as legitimate members of the community, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that implies.”
Mater and others are also looking into the possibility of other sites, so there is still a chance that a shelter location will come about that satisfies a greater portion of the community. The clock continues to tick, while winter continues on its way.
By Jay Sharpe