New Homeless Shelter Battle Brews

After a yearlong break from controversy, battle lines are being drawn anew, following an announcement that some homeless sheltering would be moved back to the downtown core this winter. One group is already threatening a lawsuit to prevent the move. The Downtown Corvallis Association, however, with its tortured history with the issue, are decidedly quiet for the moment.

The new men’s cold weather shelter is currently slated to have 50 beds, and would be located on the ground floor of the Community Services Consortium building at 545 SW Second. The new location replaces last year’s shelter at a long-closed Hanson’s Tire Factory that neighbors the First Alternative South Co-op. The Hanson’s building has been owned by Devco, and is scheduled for redevelopment, making it no longer available. 

Prior to last year, Corvallis Housing First ran a 40 bed men’s cold weather shelter mired in controversy that was eventually closed as settlement of a lawsuit filed by their neighbors. 

Like last year’s shelter, the new shelter would be run by the Corvallis Unitarian Universalists Fellowship. In approximate numbers, $60,000 of the shelter’s $137,000 budget comes from City and County coffers.

Going Year-Around, Maybe?
The envisioned men’s cold weather shelter on Second Street would open November 1. The daytime drop-in center and Stone Soup have also signed leases to move to the new location—both are year-round services. 

Mayor Biff Traber also discloses there is discussion of offering year-round sheltering at the new location. Shawn Collins, the Housing Opportunities Action Council (HOAC) Manager says there are fire code requirements that would need to be met for a permanent shelter, but more importantly, an interested organization would need to be found to run it.

Collins’s position is paid in parts by the United Way, the City, and the County. HOAC is a joint City and County organization co-chaired by Traber and outgoing County Commissioner Anne Schuster.

According to Collins, even with more beds, last year’s shelter served fewer individuals than previous years, but they tended to stay longer. He sees this as a good thing, pointing out that the longer someone stays, the more stable they become, which increases their chances for finding permanent housing. Collins disclosed that last year, 17 clients were able to move into housing and 7 went to addiction treatment.  

Last season’s men’s cold weather shelter served 164.

Collins credits much of the uptick in success to increased staff and volunteers, as well as having a dedicated case manager on site five days a week.

There is Opposition
Despite talk of last year’s success, the new shelter does have foes. Our prior reporting found smaller businesses generally unfavorable to the prior downtown core sheltering offered by Corvallis Housing First. We reported the situation was especially hard for small business owners already on the edge financially, some of them homeless themselves, and living in their shops. 

The consensus among those businesses was the Corvallis Housing First shelter program was geared towards the most hardened of homeless populations, which resulted in a more aggressive and criminal subset of homeless coming into Corvallis for services. This subset would then interact aggressively with prospective customers, in effect, chasing them away.

Police statistics confirmed there were increased incidents, including some of a sexual nature towards minors perpetrated by homeless individuals. Somewhat anomalously at the time, the president of the primary business group for downtown, the Downtown Corvallis Association, said the group supported the shelter, even as his membership clearly did not. It later came out that the board president owns a local private security firm. 

Currently, given last year’s shelter being outside the downtown core, and some intentional mitigations from the City, we’ve found potential support and opposition to the new shelter about evenly divided among small business interviewees—mainly they were concerned, but open to a shelter, as long as there are better controls than the last time a downtown shelter was present. Some business owners and homeless advocates also expressed concern with so many services being centralized in one location. 

Currently, Downtown Corvallis Association board members have not responded to requests for comment. We did reach their Executive Director Joan Wessell, but she hung up on our reporter without comment.

Longtime local homeless services critic Catherine Mater owns and operates a downtown engineering firm, and she has already organized an opposition group that met May 10. Their discussion centered on lobbying the City to withdraw funds, and raising money for a lawsuit. Mater once initiated efforts for a ballot measure limiting homeless shelters, but withdrew when Corvallis Housing First acquiesced in the lawsuit against them. 

Most observers believe last year’s shelter proved a better neighbor than the one of prior years, but are concerned that the new location is deeper into the downtown core than ever before, and that it concentrates a critical mass of services in one place. On that last point, some homeless advocates would maintain that as a potential positive.

He discloses working directly with neighbors to address concerns. The dialogue resulted in having cameras and security patrols, making bathrooms available before the shelter opened, moving the entrance at one point based on community feedback, and even changing the hours. Collins also says they were able to be proactive about behavioral problems, which contributed toward the success of the shelter, and that having more staff and volunteers also helped the shelter operate more smoothly for the neighbors. Collins answers some of these concerns with what made last year different.

See the online version for a complete list of reporters compiling this story.
 By Advocate Staff
– Reporters: Jay Sharpe, Chris McDowell, Alisha Saville, Jonah Anderson