Fifty years ago Wednesday President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, one of the many landmark pieces of social legislation that came out of his administration.
He signed it one week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. And it’s no coincidence that one event followed the other.
That was one of the lessons offered at a public forum on fair housing at Oregon State’s Memorial Union. The event, sponsored by OSU and the city of Corvallis, brought together community groups and individuals that work on housing issues and featured a keynote speech by Diane Hess, the education and outreach director of the nonprofit Fair Housing Council of Oregon.
Hess’ presentation, which included slides reflecting Oregon and U.S. history, offered parallels between the anti-minority and anti-religious exclusionary practices of our predecessors in the state and challenges the state and nation face on those issues in the era of Trump.
Hess showed a video that noted the riots that followed the King assassination and the pressure that was brought to bear on a segregationist House committee chairman who resisted bringing the housing act to the floor for a vote.
Hess’ remarks were followed by question and answer session and presentations from nonprofits working on housing issues in the mid-valley. And in a chilling sign of the times, Hess said her office is reluctant to advise clients to takes housing complaints to the federal Housing and Urban Development agency because of the possibility of information being shared with immigration officials.
One thread that brought the housing issue home to Corvallis were remarks on homelessness.
Shawn Collins, project manager of the Corvallis-Benton County Housing Opportunities Action Council, said that “homelessness is one of the last civil rights frontiers,” and he and other speakers expressed concerns about the “law enforcement enhancement area” ordinance that was passed March 26 by the Albany City Council.
Judy Ball, a board member of Corvallis Housing First and lead author of a League of Women Voters of Corvallis report that sought to “count” the homeless in town, noted that her group runs Partners Place, which has 14 apartments, and the Van Buren House, which offers 18 bedrooms.
“Largely the people in the facilities have been homeless,” Ball said. “We offer permanent supported housing and case management, but once we’re full there aren’t a lot of other options in Corvallis. That’s the danger we face on a day-to-day basis."
Chris Hawkins of the Corvallis School District added that the district faces the challenge of more than 220 homeless students and is offering food pantry service and clothing assistance. Casa Latinos Unidos de Benton County, which works on some of the same issues, is now housed in the district office.
Connecting community members with resources and avenues for networking was one of the key themes of the event, with many participants noting that they were aware of some of the other groups and individuals but that Wednesday marked the first time that they had met face to face.
Emily Tapper, a health navigator with Benton County, perhaps put the challenge best.
“Whatever the client needs,” she said of what the 30 navigators hope to achieve. “It kind of snowballs from there … and sometimes we have to put the snowballs back together.”