A committee looking at options for homelessness in Corvallis is thinking outside the tent.
The Ad Hoc Committee on Camping presented a white paper this month to the Housing Opportunities Action Council (HOAC) recommending several possible transitional housing options for Corvallis’ homeless citizens. The recommendations include:
• Collaborating with city and county staff to find zoning for scattered car sites.
• One or more group camps.
• Tiny house villages and “Conestoga Huts” (minimal material micro-shelters).
• Amending municipal codes to allow for new shelter options in the city.
• Establishing additional Oxford Houses.
• Creating a community support team to provide outreach efforts at homeless campsites.
Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber, who also serves as the Action Council's co-chair, said the white paper represented a “major step forward” for a community struggling with how to deal with homelessness, "because it's looking at a range of options."
“I have much higher expectations that you might get something when there’s a range of options rather than one take-it-or-leave-it proposal,” Traber said. “It’s a great step. The next step is for the HOAC to have a discussion about the white paper and what, if any, recommendations or changes they want to make.”
The Action Council, a committee of 20 local agencies and organizations overseeing the county’s 10-year plan to address homelessness, is scheduled to weigh in on the recommendations during its April meeting.
The Committee on Camping — made up of Action Council members Aleita-Hass Holcombe, Jim Swinyard, Bob Bernhard, Ed Epley, Peggy McGuire and Kevin Schultz —was established in spring 2016 to address issues relating to homeless camping that occur each year when the men’s and women’s shelters close on March 31. The committee was charged with exploring new options after a pilot program looking to establish a fenced-in legal campsite failed to get off the ground.
Hass-Holcombe, Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center president, is hoping the white paper and the closing of the cold weather shelters on Friday will remind community members of the urgent need to start moving forward with solutions.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time and we didn’t plan it (to coincide with the closures) but I think it’s good timing because it might create an awareness and a realization that we haven’t made any provisions to be proactive,” she said. “Until we become more proactive, the community is going to be dealing with the same thing we’ve had before and that hasn’t been working.”
Swinyard, a former Benton County sheriff, said his goal in co-writing the white paper was to go beyond the idea of just looking at campsites for the homeless.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve got a shortage of housing opportunities in the community. It’s not just isolated to the homeless community either; it runs all the way up,” Swinyard said. “It’s not anything we’re going to fix immediately. We need to grow our way out of the problem just like how we got into it. We, as a community, need to find a range of housing opportunities.”
Swinyard said the white paper recommendations could be effective immediately at helping decriminalizing homelessness in Corvallis. After serving as sheriff, Swinyard said it became clear to him that further law enforcement was not the solution to homelessness.
“To take up their time, both law enforcement and the courts’ time, to pursue someone whose only crime is they don’t have a home, that’s a real waste of our public safety resources,” he said. “But if all we’re doing is changing their status from illegal to legal, we still have the overarching problem of unaffordable housing. Addressing housing is the long term solution; this is a Band-Aid.”
Swinyard said the only long-term solution is for the entire city of Corvallis to share responsibility for addressing homelessness.
“This isn’t something that’s a problem for a half a dozen people; it’s a problem for the whole community. And the whole community has to be a part of the solution,” he said. “We have a lot of smart people in the community. If this is something people want to fix, we have the resources to do it. Now it’s a matter of commitment and will.”
A copy of the white paper is attached to the online version of this story. It also is available on the Action Council's website at bentonhoac.com/monthly-meetings.