In the last month, a camp of 23 unhoused individuals emerged at a church on West Hills Road. Five of these individuals are now housed, as the church and social service agencies partnered together. Conversely, this area along West Hills Road, east of 53rd Street, is a mix of rural residential properties with islands of small suburban neighborhoods — and residents are concernd, not only about the camp, but also about the growth of the city, as a tree farm site is being proposed for a 2,000 unit housing development.
The Camp and Church
The First Congregational United Church of Christ occupies almost six acres on West Hills Road, and it neighbors a tree farm where the homeless have camped for many years – the same tree farm for which a 2,000 unit housing development is currently being considered.
Over the past year, both the church and area residents noticed and grew concerned about an increase in homeless activity around the tree farm. In response, the church’s ministry team decided to offer supporting services to address some of the needs they identified, such as installing a dumpster and portable outdoor toilet.
The services have now evolved into the church offering a hosted camp, that some now call Safe Camp, which has also concerned neighbors. David Lin, who owns the tree farm property, asked law enforcement to increase patrols, and arrests were made for trespassing.
On July 7, someone visited the church and informed them that a camper was arrested for trespassing on the church’s property, and showed her video footage of the arrest.
Rev. Jennifer Butler, the church’s senior pastor, said she was concerned since no one from the church reported the trespassing and contacted law enforcement to clarify.
“For all we knew, people were sitting on our front porch charging devices with the power strip that we provided without any problems,” said Butler.
After talking with an officer from the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, Butler visited the wooded ground to see whether anyone was camping on the church’s property. She met three campers who took shelter in the tree farm near the boundary of the church grounds. Speaking with them increased her awareness of what campers experience.
On July 12, Butler received a call from one of the campers she met about another arrest and went to the tree farm to learn more. She explained that the church isn’t interested in prosecuting campers for trespassing on their property, so the officer suggested that she mark the boundaries of the church’s wooded 1.34 acre parcel which sits adjacent to the tree farm.
Within a week, 23 people set up camp on the church’s property.
“We ended up with people at our doorstep one day and everything has moved from that point,” said Butler. Adding that the governing board of the church met on July 16 and decided to keep the camp open on a temporary basis while they researched the best practices and feasibility of maintaining it as a longer term ministry.
“The governing board of our congregation made a decision that we have a moral imperative to shelter the stranger, care for the poor and the oppressed. There’s no gray area here, it is clear in both the Hebrew scriptures and the second testament. This is what it means to be a person of faith in the world and to also be a person who stands in the gap and is willing to protect the poor.“
Within 24 hours, the church’s ministry sought guidance from partners in law enforcement, social services, county planning, and other faith communities. Since the church had an active Houseless Communities ministry team, members already had relationships with various local organizations and agencies. One of the first things that was decided was that the church needed to have campers sign a code of conduct agreement and to plan how they will enforce that code.
This code of conduct is a work in progress, but 21 of the 23 original campers agreed to sign the original version. The other two campers left the camp site. Campers agreed to attend a weekly meeting to discuss camp business and any issues that arise. They also agreed not to have weapons or drugs on the campsite or engage in any illegal activity. Only people who signed the code of conduct were allowed on the campground between dusk and dawn, and members of the church community perform nightly random checks to enforce these rules. The church is currently revising the agreement pending feedback from campers, neighbors, law enforcement, and partner agencies.
The first mandatory meeting between members of the congregation ministry team and the campers was held on July 22. Some neighbors learned about this meeting and decided to attend. Butler said that church volunteers sent the neighbors away, but agreed to have a listening meeting to collect feedback and concerns from neighbors in a few days.
Campers and Neighbors
“There are really passionate feelings on three or four sides of this issue,” said West Hills Neighborhood Association president Cody Meyer. “It’s a complicated problem,”
On July 25, the church hosted the listening meeting, and Butler said around 300 people attended. Attendees were able to talk about their concerns for up to one minute on the microphone. Afterwards, they could sit at tables staffed by church volunteers who were there to listen and make notes about concerns.
“There was some anger, some frustration, there was also some support and positive feedback,” said Butler. “There were lots of concerns, many of the same concerns that I have, that the congregation has, and they are the same concerns the campers have.”
On August 8, the West Hills Neighborhood Association held their own meeting. An attendee asked Butler whether the church could guarantee that none of the current campers have convictions for murder, rape, or pedophilia. She responded that she could not guarantee that since they haven’t run criminal background checks, but all are well known to local social service agencies.
Privately, most neighbors expressed disappointment about the perceived lack of communication from the church before the camp emerged and immediately afterwards.
Risk of fire since the camp is a wooded area, worries about potential crime and public safety, and practical issues like management of waste disposal for 21 campers were also frequently mentioned concerns.
Given the history in the larger tree farm property, where people have been camping for years, neighbors have been skeptical. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office incident logs describe incidents over the past months where police found weapons and drug paraphernalia in the tree farm camp. Most of the incidents logged describe trespassing and warrant arrests, but the incident log describes a June 6 incident where a felon possessed both a firearm and Methamphetamine, and another on July 23 where a different felon possessed a firearm and was arrested a second time for trespassing.
Meanwhile, some neighbors have expressed appreciation for what the church is attempting, and the campers seem to have embraced the church’s policy and approach.
“This camp puts us in the spotlight a little more. It makes some of us uncomfortable,” said camper Robin Ford. “But for the most part we are all happy this is happening because this can make things easier for homeless people everywhere. It’s a step up and we may be able to show that Eugene [Opportunity Village] is not just a fluke.”
Butler also spoke of Opportunity Village, and related that the church is seeking advice from contacts and agencies to determine best practices managing such a camp.
“We need to talk with each other and work the issues out,” said Jerry Brown, another of the campers. “Maybe they [local government] need to step back and take a look, and see if this place can start off doing something they are not doing. See where they can fill in the gaps and help.”
Brown also said he feels privileged to take part in the camp.
Neighbors, Developers, and the Camp
The church, like the neighborhood, is on land that is divided jurisdictionally between City and County. The church’s main parcel falls within City jurisdiction, and the County has jurisdiction over the parcel on which the camp is located.
That may change as the City considers annexing the tree farm and surrounding land so that the tree farm property can be properly developed. Annexed, the land would have access to City services, like water and sewer.
Increasing the local housing stock is a goal for the City, and was a major topic of conversation in the last election. However a number of neighbors and a handful of City Councilors have expressed concerns about a large scale development such as what is being proposed, possibly over 2,000 units.
Concerns include capacities of surrounding schools and roads, storm water, and other infrastructure needs. Arguments against the development range from worries that taxpayers will have to shoulder the infrastructure burden, to environmental concerns.
Neighborhood livability has not been explicitly stated, but it is likely in everyone’s minds, as it was in the forefront of last year’s mayoral debates.
For Safe Camp, the question will come down to who will be making the land use decisions that would allow them to continue or not.
Under County jurisdiction, if the church decides to run the camp beyond 90 days, they would need to complete a County land use planning process. They have two primary options: applying for a conditional use permit or requesting a formal interpretation of the county code. The first potential process involves a public comment period before reaching a decision while the latter does not. Either way, residents may appeal the decision.
Benton County Development Director and Planning Official Greg Verret says the County code doesn’t address this particular use, provided the camp is temporary. The church may continue hosting the camp for up to 30 days with no further action, with the option of extending it to 90 days.
An administrative overview will be triggered if the church submits a site plan for review. A site plan would need to outline the church’s plan for toilets, garbage disposal, and managing health and safety. The beginning of the 90 days is not clearly defined yet, but would likely expire around October 23.
The City will have its own permitting process if it annexes the land, which may mean the church must go through the permitting process twice. Delays in the process are common.
“As a church, we hadn’t decided to establish permanency and we haven’t decided to shut it down,” said Butler. “We are trying to discern what to do next while being aware that we have neighbors on West Hills Road and the broader community of Corvallis.”
Lens to the Future
However these circumstances play out in the West Hills area these next few years, Corvallisites can anticipate seeing more situations like these unfolding in other outskirt areas. A study from Portland State University anticipated our population will increase 16 percent by 2035. And by 2067, there will be 27.8 percent more of us looking for housing in the Corvallis area.
By Samantha Sied