Solidarity Speaks in Effort to Stop Sweeps, Support Unhoused
On Wednesday, June 23, the Oregon Department of Transportation carried out the latest in a series of “sweeps,” or forced removals of unhoused people from certain areas of the city where they’ve been living. The sweeps have been ongoing since early December of 2020, when news circulated that the City of Corvallis was going to go back to business as usual by resuming evictions of unhoused people, starting with those who had been residing at or near Pioneer Park. In response, a group of community members came together to help their unhoused neighbors with the impending evictions.
“Unhoused people in that park had been living there for a while, and then the city decided to evict these people and didn’t really give them a lot of notice,” said William Schoenhals, one of the organizers. “Forced evictions are never good, but this one was especially bad. The city wasn’t really helping unhoused people with where to go or what to do or how to respond, and so we realized that it was kind of up to us to help these people out.”
According to Kali Doten, another organizer, the group quickly realized that they had to ask the people being directly impacted by these sweeps what their needs were and what they wanted to see happen.
“We made a couple of trips down to Pioneer Park a few days before the sweep happened to get in touch with as many people as we could and show them that there are community members who care about unhoused people, are paying attention, and want to support in ways unhoused people see fit,” said Doten.
The group talked to unhoused people at the park, learned their names, and tried to determine what they wanted to do and what kind of help they needed.
“It became apparent that most people didn’t have the resources to move,” said Doten. “Some people had plans for where they were going, but a lot of people that we interacted with didn’t.”
Some unhoused folks had RVs that were immobile and needed to be towed. Organizers created a shopping list to keep track of requested material needs, which included propane tanks, tents, flashlights, water bottles, sleeping bags, etc. The group then established a GoFundMe to help fund these needs, and raised enough money to afford and redistribute the requested items and even pay for tow trucks to help relocate people.
The work, however, did not end there.
The Sweeps Continue
Another sweep took place on Wednesday, May 26, at an area known as ‘the meadows’ — the area between Pioneer Park and the skate park. There the city, in conjunction with ODOT, which had been helping the city conduct some of these sweeps, brought in equipment ranging from pickup trucks to small dump trucks to tractors. Organizers came together again, established another GoFundMe to raise money for material needs — extra funds and supplies, as with the last fundraiser, were given directly to those being displaced by the sweeps, and helped ensure that unhoused people in the area had enough time to relocate.
“Me specifically, I helped this one guy by standing watch outside of his tent while he packed up all his stuff in a mad rush, acting as a buffer between him and the city and ODOT,” said Nick Martin, an organizer who recently became involved in the group. “It even got to the point where I had to tell one of the city employees, ‘Hey, this guy is packing, he’s moving, he’s going to comply, just give him a second’ — which they did.”
Doten said that she and other organizers spoke with an ODOT employee to get a better understanding of why they were there.
“What we’re hearing is that the city is actually pressuring ODOT to ‘clean up’ these areas that are technically ODOT property, but because they’re high visibility and near downtown, those are the places that the city really wants to have cleared out,” said Doten. “The city seems to be beholden only to the Downtown Corvallis Association or rich white folks who are ‘Not In My Backyard’ people — those who say we need to just remove these houseless people because they are an eyesore.”
In addition, Doten noted that ODOT uses prison labor, meaning that incarcerated folks are among the crews being deployed to assist with forcibly removing people. “You’re forcing disempowered, disenfranchised people to do this labor, which is enacting violence on other marginalized people in the community, and it’s just so mind-boggling that that is a practice,” she said.
These efforts to uproot people also lead to the severing of long-lasting, tight-knit relations among unhoused folks living in the same area. According to Doten, unhoused women have said that this is especially hard on them, as it’s a lot safer for them to be in a group where everyone knows and looks out for each other.
“The general mood among the unhoused is heartbreaking fear,” said Schoenhals. “Especially at Pioneer Park, people have been around long enough to start improving their living situations. People knew each other well and were basically neighbors who were helping each other out; if somebody had extra propane, they were willing to share. It really was like an entire community, and so when people get evicted and lose whatever they’ve been able to build up, it destroys their relationships with other people, and it’s incredibly traumatic for them to have cops and bulldozers parked right outside.”
Schoenhals said that the purpose of these sweeps revolves around protecting the cash flow for local businesses and keeping unhoused folks off of public property so that housed people won’t have to see or think about the extent of the homeless situation in Corvallis, or how poorly it’s being managed.
No Faith in the City
The way organizers see it, the city has mishandled the housing crisis to the point where they have no confidence in its capacity to meaningfully serve its most marginalized community members.
“The city’s just deciding to do this without consulting the people who are harmed by this,” said Doten. “It’s extreme negligence. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, but regardless of that, people deserve to have safety and security and not just be pushed around the city constantly. People get posted [the city posts signs alerting the unhoused when to expect a sweep], they have a certain amount of time to move, and they have to move to another place that’s still technically illegal, and that means that they’ll get posted and swept again, and it’s this constant thing that’s exhausting, unsafe, and undignified.”
Organizers have noted that this is in direct contrast to the Imagine Corvallis 2040 community vision that was adopted in 2016, which explicitly states that one of the city’s main areas of focus is to support, engage with, and accommodate groups at all income levels.
Doten also pointed out the city council’s financial negligence regarding its expenditure of $90,000 provided by the CARES Act — money that initially went towards building a managed camping facility for unhoused people near the BMX Track and Corvallis Men’s Shelter.
“They went ahead and paid for the labor and materials to get this area built up, they were going to pay for people to be employed to watch the area, and then the permit didn’t go through,” said Doten. “That’s federal money that was given to municipalities to help during this time, and if you think about what we did with $7,000 during the Pioneer Park situation, $90,000 could do a lot.” She added, “I think that’s just a big disgrace, and another example of how the city is not prepared to actually work on meaningful long-term solutions, nor to actually include the people who are impacted the most by these decisions.”
The city council has attempted to discuss other ways to address Corvallis’ housing crisis. On May 20, council members participated in a joint work session with the Benton County Board of Commissioners, where the Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity (HOPE) advisory board provided recommendations on what the city could do to help unhoused folks.
“The HOPE organization, led by Julie Arena, has been tasked to find a solution for those experiencing houselessness in Benton County,” said Jennifer Moreland, Executive Director of the Downtown Corvallis Association. “HOPE should be coming up with a short-term solution for those that are currently being displaced to have housing or camping on property that is legal for such activities.”
“They took the whole two hours to talk about it, and they scheduled to meet again at the end of June to go further into it, but what’s happening in between is that all these camps are getting dispersed,” said Martin. “It’s frustrating to see the hypocrisy of the city council talking about how they care and how they want to help, but then you have cops out there posting and telling people to get out of their camps, and the city will bring in more police in case anybody resists.”
Charity vs. Mutual Aid Model
Consequently, these citywide failures have also strengthened organizers’ resolve that it is ultimately up to community members to help and support each other. The group is organized around the principles of mutual aid, meaning they operate in solidarity with the unhoused community, take direction and leadership from them, and offer aid according to their needs as opposed to what the organizers think the unhoused folks’ needs should be.
“I think that’s the big thing that’s missing from Corvallis,” said Doten. “All the services for unhoused people that are provided are pretty well-established, and compared to other cities, there’s a lot here, but nobody is actually including unhoused people in these conversations and decisions.”
“I could have joined any of the volunteering organizations, which are great, and we absolutely need them in Corvallis, but this is a unique opportunity to help people in a much more direct way,” said Schoenhals. “Our organizing has always been based around whatever our unhoused neighbors need, and that’s how we see ourselves. We’re not here to save them from anything, we’re helping as neighbors — talking to them, learning their stories and learning what their exact situation is. It’s a different experience that I think works a lot better.”
Organizers expressed hope that the work they’re doing will have broader, lasting impacts on the Corvallis community.
Importantly, Doten said that she hopes this work will encourage people to realize that now is the time when the community will start to see more and more people become unhoused as moratoriums on being late to pay rent or utility bills are starting to get lifted.
“We have people who are hundreds of dollars behind in rent and utilities, and all of a sudden, their own states and cities are deciding to allow their landlords and power companies to charge them all that back rent, and if they can’t pay it, they obviously lose their housing or their power, so I think these next coming months are when we’re really going to see the housing crisis increase,” said Doten. “This is not an issue of people with special circumstances; most of us in the U.S. are a paycheck away from being unhoused. One big emergency can put us out on the street. And regardless of people’s lifestyles or mental health situations, every human being deserves the human need of safe and secure housing.”
Schoenhals also noted that this situation of being one emergency or paycheck away from being unhoused is reflected in conversations that he and other organizers have had with people who are experiencing houselessness in Corvallis.
“Some have described that they’re in medical debt, or they moved here for a job prospect and the job fell through and they didn’t have any money to get anywhere else, and there are people who actually go to work, but they just can’t afford that deposit or down payment, or they can’t get approved for any of the housing here,” said Schoenhals. “There’s just a million tiny things that can add up.”
Being Part of the Solution
Currently, the group is operating on a short timeline with the sweeps that are occurring. “This isn’t just something that has happened or is going to happen in the future,” said Schoenhals. “It’s pretty much happening right now.”
Doten stressed the importance of community members participating in city council meetings to speak up for those who are unhoused.
“Aside from going in and having conversations with our unhoused neighbors to figure out what’s needed, we’re also trying to put pressure on the city council, because they’re ultimately the ones who made this decision,” said Doten. “I urge folks to attend city council meetings, give written and verbal testimony in support of our unhoused neighbors, and really just try to keep up to date with what’s going on.”
“Our goal now is to garner more community support, bring more folks in, and do what we can to help folks out,” said Doten.
Organizers expressed the belief that people in the community shouldn’t be intimidated or discouraged by how entrenched the city’s unhoused crisis appears to be.
“It’s a systemic thing, but honestly? You can’t let that prevent you from doing something,” said Martin. “Here I am, coming together with my fellow neighbors and helping people out.”
“Our group is just people who all have the same idea that there’s no time to pass new legislation, there’s no time to form a committee or an office to figure out what to do,” said Schoenhals. “People need help now, and that’s what we set out to go do.”
“For me personally, I think part of the work we’re doing is one, showing unhoused folks that people care, and two, showing other people in the community who are housed that these are people too — deconstructing any sort of idea that people have of what ‘homeless’ means or what a homeless person looks like or who they are or how they act,” said Martin. “It’s humanizing people who have been dehumanized.”