Changes in Corvallis’ Homeless Services Revealed at CitySpeak

The support network for those without housing has changed in Corvallis this past year. The Advocate called on the people behind those changes for its latest CitySpeak Forum – and what ensued also touched on how services may look in the future. 

The panel included agency and organization leaders as well as elected officials. With 11 guest speakers, it was a packed evening. 

Limited Services Access 

Leading off the discussion was Sara Hartstein, Health Communities division manager for Benton County, who pointed out that while most people were able to shelter in place at home when the coronavirus hit, being homeless during a pandemic presents a new set of challenges for an already vulnerable population. 

On top of limited access to regular services, homeless people hoping to prevent exposure to COVID-19 struggle with hygiene needs such as frequent handwashing, and social distancing is tough if you’re in a shelter or encampment. Simple things like charging a phone and getting online take on new difficulty in a pandemic. And with cold weather bearing down, reduced shelter capacities means further adapting. 

“We have made some progress, and a part of that progress is because of the collaborations that we have in our community, and the problem-solving that we’ve had to engage in together to help meet those needs,” Hartstein said. “And I feel like a lot of our community partners, our jurisdictional partners have stepped up to try to meet the needs.” 

A Vulnerable Population 

Pivoting to the medical front, Paulina Kaiser, director of health outcomes research and evaluation at Samaritan Health Services, cited research that shows homeless people disproportionately suffer from a wide range of physical and mental health issues. To quantify the problem locally, Samaritan has developed a custom registry in its medical record system to flag homeless patients in its service area. 

The registry isn’t perfect, but it has helped identify around 1,400 homeless patients, and with that, it’s confirmed those patients are more likely to be inflicted with a long list of mental and physical health conditions. Those patterns are seen at the national level as well. Among the solutions, Samaritan has added social workers to its staff who help homeless people connect with resources and care. A report on the registry program’s findings is expected in January. 

Housing the Unhoused 

Community Services Consortium draws on various sources of federal and state funding to prevent evictions and help homeless people regain housing. Dina Eldridge, housing services manager, said the eviction moratoriums enacted by Gov. Kate Brown were certainly needed to hold back a “tsunami” of people facing homelessness because of debt and/or unemployment. 

Since May, CSC has spent around $2.5 million to prevent evictions for people who’ve been impacted by COVID-19 thanks to $3 million in CARES Act funding, according to Eldridge. That’s about the same amount of money as the organization’s total annual budget. She said more than 1,500 households have applied for assistance. 

“It’s been a tremendous need and a very challenging response, but we have helped at least 550 households, and probably will help at least 100 more before those funds run out,” Eldridge said. Once the CARES money runs out, CSC still has a budget for its normal housing programs to rely on. 

Homeless Youth Services 

Ann Craig, executive director of Jackson Street Youth Services, said youth homelessness is a major path to adult homelessness. To that end, it’s important to stave off or at least limit any period of being unhoused for young people. The organization opened its first shelter 20 years ago, and also offers outreach, mentoring, life skills training, support groups, transitional housing, and works with the schools and child welfare. 

Under pandemic conditions, Craig said youth are at even higher risk for isolation, abuse, neglect and depression. While a few things have gone virtual such as mentoring, Jackson Street is keeping its doors open and carrying on outreach in the streets. 

“We’re providing the programs, and so the challenge is following guidelines to provide those services and to take care of our staff both physically and emotionally through this time,” Craig said. 

Low/No-Income Assistance 

Community Outreach, Inc. provides medical and dental clinics, behavioral health services, preschool childcare, food distribution, and a housing program. Ben Danley, executive director, said the biggest impact from the pandemic so far has been reduced shelter capacity – from around 70 people a night in pre-COVID times to around 35 to 40 now. 

There have been other adjustments, too. Behavioral health services have shifted to remote visitations and Mari’s Place is doing emergency childcare. Emergency sheltering, a program that stood for many years, has been completely cancelled. 

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, Danley took a moment to issue a message of gratitude: “The folks who support COI are so important to us, and I just wanted to thank them.” 

The Unity Shelter Umbrella 

Unity Shelter represents the merged efforts of three individual programs: The Men’s Shelter, Safe Camp and Room at the Inn, which is a women’s shelter. COVID-19 is complicating the work for all of them. 

A merger was motivated by collaboration, according to Shawn Collins, executive director. He said the three operations “held hands” in terms of policy and programming for many years, building on each other’s policies and working together. Now, they’ll work together on grants and funding, staff policies and opportunities. 

“It just made sense to be able to bring those programs together and cover what I would say is the low-barrier end of the housing spectrum in town,” Collins said. “As we go forward, trying to work on non-congregate shelter solutions, trying to broaden the spectrum of what we can offer is really important.” 

With limited family sheltering options in the area, Collins said there is still unmet need. He highlighted the lack of suitable alternatives for members of the LGBTQ community, saying that culturally appropriate shelter opportunities is a big target going forward. 

“We’ve got people who are non-binary, or gender fluid, or in transition in some way,” Collins said. “Trying to find a safe and comfortable place for them to find shelter is very difficult.” 

Getting Housed First 

Corvallis Housing First was originally known as the Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition, which operated The Men’s Shelter. The organization currently runs three housing and support facilities on a philosophy of “housing first,” providing low-barrier, behavior-based housing without preconditions such as sobriety or treatment participation. The goal is to help people towards self-sufficiency. 

The pandemic came as an initial shock to the organization, but because they’re in the business of providing housing, the challenge hasn’t as much been about shelter, more about educating people about coronavirus risks and providing personal protective equipment, masks and sanitizer, and trying to make sure housing is safe its occupants. 

“We’ve continued to provide street outreach every week,” said Andrea Myhre, executive director of Corvallis Housing First. “That’s been a pretty amazing thing. When people are trying to shelter in place and a lot of people are working from home, our volunteers continue to go out on the street to bring basic supplies and to try to support people that are living outside right now.” 

Personal Success Story 

It was a long journey for Shane Bertrand before arriving at Corvallis Housing First. He became homeless the first time as a child with a single mother. Around five years ago, Bertrand and his daughter found themselves homeless in Corvallis. They stayed in the shelter a few times, couch surfed, and just tried to make due. 

One day, he was handed a business card and told to contact Corvallis Housing First. They wanted to get him housed immediately. Since then, a world of possibilities has opened for Bertrand. He’s gained confidence and had time to explore who he is and why he’s been homeless, and he’s grateful to the organization and its staff for their genuinely helpful mentality. 

“Having that safe place to be and not have to genuinely worry about your home every day, it’s allowed me as a human being to grow, and to understand where my issues were coming from,” Bertrand said. “Being here and knowing that I’m safe has allowed me to confront this stuff.” 

Bertrand also shared his story of getting clean from heroin. After a harrowing month and on the end of 11 days not sleeping much, he got involved with a guy who wanted to commit some criminal activity. Right in the middle of it, Bertrand chose to walk away, realizing that eventually someone was going to get hurt. It was a moment of clarity. 

“I just realized how much of my life up until that point had just been predetermined for me because I just kept following in the same path,” he said. 

He spent two weeks holed up in a Motel 6 getting straightened out. He credited a friend of a friend, a hotel maid, for helping him make it through. He didn’t really go there to detox – he went to die. He figured that’s what would happen, and he wasn’t really broken up about it. 

“It hurts even now to look back at myself then because man, I feel so bad for that guy,” Bertrand said. “I want to give that guy a hug and let him know that stuff does get better … you have to be willing to continually put yourself out there and ask for help when you need it, not when it gets so bad that things just crash down on you, but when you need it.” 

Bertrand, who says he’s a natural salesman, is looking into an insurance license. He sees a great opportunity in the field – everybody always needs insurance, the business isn’t going away. 

Public Policy Leaders 

Homelessness tends to be a highly visible issue, and in the Corvallis area, the increasing presence of the homeless isn’t hard to spot. 

Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said in particular it’s been noticeable during the past eight months or so under the pandemic. He gave a number of contributing factors such as economics and housing difficulties as well as other towns pointing the homeless towards services in the Corvallis area. With shelters limited on capacity because of the pandemic, the city also relaxed enforcement on illegal camping. 

City officials this week directed staff to begin working with Unity Shelter on doing more management in the camp around the hygiene center, but still treating it as a temporary installation. Traber said tremendous work is being done by a broad array of local service providers whose efforts the city supports. The city council also redirected $124,000 in CARES Act dollars to begin funding the work. A structure for vehicle camping was also discussed by the council. 

Traber said there needs to be more structure for people who can’t get into housing so they still have a safe place to stay rather than wandering around town looking for something. 

Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot explained the motivation behind four brief county surveys concerning the area’s unhoused population. She said the aim is to learn where the community and the homeless population stand on key services provided to the homeless. The surveys are pushed out as far and wide as possible to get a better picture of the issue in Benton County and where resources are most needed. 

“It’s a much more visible problem here in Corvallis, and homelessness tends to look different when you’re out in a rural area,” Augerot said. “It’s much more likely to be RV or car living, or being doubled up, probably tucked up along a forest road or on someone’s farm field.” 

The surveys will benefit the H.O.P.E. Advisory Board as it guides the city and county on homelessness issues. H.O.P.E. Program Coordinator Julie Arena said the goal is to have the public input in front of public officials in March as annual budget talks are kicking off. There is also an in-person client survey for service providers who still see people. 

A Path Forward 

One concept emerging from ongoing research is the notion of co-locating services – creating a multipurpose campus for those organizations and agencies that serve the homeless. Something of the size needed would be tough to place in downtown Corvallis, but there’s no shortage of space in Benton County. 

Arena said data and modeling points to a campus of service providers as more effective than spread out efforts. However, the board also recognized that there is need throughout the county, not just in Corvallis. A dream location for such a campus would provide around 100 acres or so, Arena said. Of course, that’s getting way ahead of any discussion or planning process. 

“The vision that has come through some of this data and research is an idea for a long-term goal of co-location of services with emergency or transitional beds for different populations,” Arena said. “And as other people have mentioned, there is a real need for … singe-resident occupancy emergency sheltering and transitional sheltering for our community members that are non-binary or gender non-conforming, for the medically fragile, for people who are staying with their children and they need a locking door and not a tent.” 

By Cody Mann