Brad Smith sat at the check-in desk at the Men’s Cold Weather Shelter talking to dozens of people as they streamed through during the shelter’s open house Sunday.
Smith, the president of the board for Corvallis Housing First, which operates the shelter, said the topics were wide ranging: Some people wanted to understand the shelter’s basic operations, others had more detailed questions. But there was one topic that arose repeatedly:
“The biggest question that keeps coming up is ‘What are we going to do next year?’”
And that is the question: earlier this month Corvallis Housing First settled a lawsuit with a neighbor who claimed the shelter was a chronic nuisance by agreeing to not operate a shelter at their current Fourth Street location after this winter. The shelter, with a capacity of around 40, will open to homeless men on November 1 and will close March 31.
Smith said the shelter, which does not have a sobriety requirement, is a low barrier place intended to basically keep homeless men from dying of exposure, and it's unknown if they will be able to find a replacement location for next year.
“There’s no plan at all,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to get another cold weather shelter established.”
If no alternate location is found, Smith said Corvallis will definitely have more men die of exposure during the winter months.
“I don’t see how we wouldn’t,” he said.
He said the open house was held as a way to be open to the public to hopefully dispel some of the concerns about the shelter.
“One of the big concerns that have come out of the public controversy is a desire by the public to have more understanding of what we do,” he said.
The shelter operates like this during the year when it is open: It opens its doors from 7 to 8 p.m.; men coming in have to go through bag checks (they aren’t allowed to bring weapons, drugs or alcohol in). Staff members do not readmit men who leave during the night (although they have a fenced-in area for the smokers outside). The men need to leave by 7 a.m.
Smith said they will also let some pre-screened men in as early as 6 p.m. to reduce the men waiting around outside the shelter for it to open, which has been a concern of neighbors. The shelter does not offer meals, but usually has snacks set out.
While there are other shelters in Corvallis, Smith said they could be full or have residency requirements, such as sobriety, that the men don’t meet. The Cold Weather Shelter's only requirement is that the men have appropriate behavior while they are in the shelter.
“The stuff we are doing is really simplistic; we’re basically trying to keep guys from freezing to death overnight,” he said.
However, he added that they do work to try to move their residents up to more permanent housing, which they can do because over time the staff at the shelter can earn the trust of the men, so they can help them address their problems.
Smith said he is very interested in tracking statistics about the men who have stayed at the shelter over their 10 previous winters:
• About a quarter of the residents are veterans.
• About half have mental illnesses (depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia are common).
• The average age is 45.
Smith said the shelter also asks how long the men have been in town, and most are not being drawn here for the services.
“There’s this concept that Corvallis is a magnet (for homeless). If that were the case, you would expect to see a steady increase (in their demand). It’s been remarkably consistent.”
Susan Elbinger, a Corvallis resident, said she attended the open house because she is concerned about homelessness.
“People tend to think just Corvallis has this problem, but it’s everywhere,” she said.
Elbinger called the agreement to close the shelter sad and frustrating.
“It’s such a needed resource. Without having something in the winter, people could literally die,” she said.
[An earlier version of this story did not make clear that the settlement does not prevent Corvallis Housing First from operating a shelter at another location; it only prevents them from continuing to operate the shelter from its current Fourth Street location.]