Local Homelessness: Costs, COVID Impacts, and Public Meetings

A pair of remote meetings this week will address the ongoing homelessness situation in the Corvallis area. The Benton County Planning Commission meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 21, for a public hearing regarding Safe Camp, and the H.O.P.E. Advisory Board meets at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 22, with several presentations on its agenda.   

Population Growth  

Homelessness continues to increase locally and nationally. Benton County’s homeless population grew 125 percent in just two years, according to reporting by The Oregonian. In 2015, most of the 127 people counted were in shelter. The number of people in shelter is rising, but the number of homeless people on the streets outpaces that. There were 287 homeless people counted in January 2017.   

Given the fluid movement of the population, tracking homelessness statistics can be a challenge. There were 247 individuals reportedly experiencing homelessness in the county in 2018, according to Point-intime counting by Oregon Housing and Community Services. However, the year prior, the Corvallis League of Women Voters said in a white paper that the number could be closer to between 855 and 1,257.  

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that while the rest of the country saw a decrease in homelessness that year, significant increases in unsheltered and chronic homelessness on the West Coast, particularly California and Oregon, offset nationwide decreases, causing an overall increase in homelessness of 2.7 percent.  

COVID Impacts 

 The coronavirus pandemic adds new challenges. Social distancing mandates are limiting shelter capacities, and in some cases, limiting volunteer staff. Housing, Opportunity, Planning and Equity (H.O.P.E.) Program Coordinator Julie Arena said that based on her experience as a liaison to homeless service providers for the joint Emergency Operations Center (EOC), each organization has had a variety of experiences.  

“Some received more new volunteers through connections made by the Benton Recovers website that provided a resource for volunteers to learn about community needs,” Arena said. “Other organizations with an older volunteer base experienced some attrition among their volunteers over age 60 and had to work to recruit and train new volunteers.”  

The City of Corvallis and Benton County collaborated to form the H.O.P.E. Advisory Board, which is tasked with making recommendations for addressing homelessness. Just as the board was getting off the ground, COVID-19 came into the picture. Arena said the pandemic has both derailed and benefited the board’s efforts.  

“While the H.O.P.E. board was unable to meet during the first four months of the pandemic response for a variety of reasons, city and county staff assigned to the EOC were able to work together in partnership on COVID response,” Arena said. “These collaborative efforts have provided a positive foundation upon which to make further progress on these topics.”  

During the process for hiring Arena as the new coordinator, she mentioned possible federal grant dollars that could be pursued. Arena said at the time she highlighted federal Medicaid reimbursement and block grant funding she had worked on in California at the Department of Health Care Services (the state Medicaid agency). She said the funding streams that could be beneficial locally must first be pursued at the state level.  

“At the county and city level, influence can be provided only by advocating to state partners with support for pursuing these options,” Arena said. “The Oregon Health Authority may be requesting a federal waiver, but further information will need to come from that department.”  

However, Arena said the county has been pursuing federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds specifically allocated for COVID-19 response. The county has partnered with the city for support and assistance in initial applications for the CDBG funds.   

Public, Institutional Costs  

The public costs related to homelessness are difficult to pinpoint. Previous reporting by The Advocate gave a sense of how expensive the problem has become at an institutional level.   

Taxpayers foot the bill for campsite cleanups, one of the consistently increasing costs associated with homeless populations. Corvallis city officials previously estimated that annual cost to be at least $150,000. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) reportedly spent $50,000 on campsite cleanups in just 10 months in 2018. The Corvallis Police Department spends upwards of another $160,000 annually in camp operations, according to previous reporting.  

“Those are funds that aren’t going to fixing potholes, picking up litter, cutting back brush, and other road maintenance everyone expects,” ODOT Public Information Officer Angela Beers Seydel said. “Cleaning up an area takes 1–3 days… an inmate crew under contract does the physical cleanup while ODOT employees operate a loader and 10-yard dump trucks.”  

Shawn Collins, former Housing Opportunities Action Council Project Manager for United Way, has estimated the cost of jailing homeless people at around $150 a day per person – thought to be at least 10 times that amount if the person requires hospitalization. And when people are released, they often find themselves back in parks or on other public property. Collins previously said the parks department pays around $85,000 annually to clean up after homeless encampments.   

Considering the numerous agencies and organizations looking to alleviate homelessness in the Corvallis area, previous Advocate reporting placed the overall cost of the issue in the millions of dollars a year.   

At the root of homelessness there are countless contributing factors. Arena cited poverty, wages failing to meet living costs, healthcare debt, student loan debt, access to behavioral care, investment in preventative efforts, childcare costs, deinstitutionalization from institutions for mental diseases, privatized incarceration models, taxation models decreasing public education in skilled trades, and investment in infrastructure expansion in a brief list of contributing causes.  

By Cody Mann