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Finding a solution: Albany team works to cure homelessness
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Finding a solution: Albany team works to cure homelessness

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The road that leads to Guy and Dawn’s house is long. Dipping and rising with the tree line, it’s hidden, back from traffic. And in the early hours of an unusually balmy afternoon in June, it’s flush with tiny bugs that swarm, then bite, and then swarm again.

The couple, married for 18 years, moved in sometime between six months and two years ago. It’s hard to remember in a neighborhood that changes so frequently. There’s the new guys on the corner. No one knows their names, only that there’s at least two of them and that the bear figurine in one of the trees near their front door manages to balance on the branch without falling to the ground and breaking.

Just over a hump in the road that leads to Guy and Dawn’s, is Jay’s. His wind turbine has been down lately but his still-hanging sign reminds visitors (and maybe Jay himself) “Today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.”

Past the hump, down the road, and on the tail end of the winding cul-de-sac, Guy’s taking a nap. He was up late, unable to sleep.

At least, that’s what he tells Albany Police Department Lt. Steven Dorn when Dorn approaches the two tents, sheltered by a tarp and tucked under a tree in the middle of Takena Landing Trail, and asks if anyone’s home.

Dorn has visited the long, dipping, rising, winding road three times this summer. He’s back for a fourth time because now, its residents are running out of time.

The land is not technically within city limits, but it's owned by the city of Albany., and those living there in the homeless camp are subject to illegal camping violations and trespass citations. Guy and Dawn have already received a citation and soon, Albany Parks and Recreation will send equipment through the neighborhood, bulldozing everything.

“When?” Guy wants to know.

Dorn, fishing around for paperwork, looks up and says, “Soon.”

The problem

During a meeting in May, the Portland City Council agreed to place portable toilets throughout the city as a way to contend with the 3,300 gallons of human waste it cleans up within a year. The toilets will cost $877,000 next fiscal year, The Oregonian reported, and come with on-site attendants to ensure cleanliness at a cost of $615,000 of the total amount budgeted.

All First Christian Church in Albany wants is one toilet, no staff and a little cooperation.

The church has gone before the City Council to ask that the portable toilet it installed be allowed to remain on its property in violation of city code, sparking a citywide conversation about homelessness and what services the city is required to — or should — provide. The council is divided, with some members advocating for homeless rights and the need to extend further services while others caution against doing much more than creating a housing-to-employment pipeline. They offer up recent coverage of the homeless in Seattle as a warning: offer more services, they worry, and more homeless people will settle in Albany.

The city estimates that there are about 70 known chronically homeless individuals in the area based on the annual point in time count, which relies on volunteers to administer questionnaires over the course of one day. The county showed 264 homeless individuals in Linn County during the count but is based on interactions in areas such as shelters or local parks, which volunteers know to be populated by homeless individuals. The count does not necessarily include those currently couch-surfing or who weren't at the locations volunteers visited on the day of the count.

On Wednesday of this past week, Lt. Casey Dorland reported to the Albany City Council that homelessness remained an issue for the city. He reminded the council of the 2006 cleanup of Boondoggle Camp, a homeless community with approximately 40 residents near Simpson Park.

“The problems have continued with the unhoused here in Albany,” he said. “Fast forward to 2010. I became the community resource lieutenant and at the time, we had Boondoggle II; that area had resettled.”

Dorland said the cleanup was again completed, but the issue persists to the current day. “Parks and Recreation cleared out two camps today and six to seven cubic yards of waste cost $11,000 to clean up.”

The city of Albany has three homeless shelters — Signs of Victory, Helping Hands and Jackson Street Youth Services — that work in conjunction with the HEART board, a body created shortly after the resettlement of Boondoggle.

HEART, or the Homeless Engagement and Resource Team, hosts a homeless fair once a year with resources from throughout the city and county, but the engagement at the one-day event is difficult to sustain throughout the year, and all three city shelters are routinely at capacity.

Possible solution

Out of the din of divided opinions and repeated attempts to curb homeless, the city has come up with the City Solutions Team.

“The plan that we put together was basically an effort to put shoe leather to getting people who identify as homeless or addicted into services and as much as we can, immediately upon contact,” Dorland said. “Most calls about transient activity are complaint-driven and we didn’t have a mechanism to immediately move them into services when we make that contact so that became the driving force behind the solutions team.”

The City Solution Team, formed in April, consists of members of the Albany Police Department and the nonprofit organization CHANCE, or Communities Helping Addicts Negotiate Change Effectively.

Any city employee — from public works staff to administrators — who may come in contact with an individual struggling with homeless or addiction has been trained by Dorland and his team.

“The instruction we give staff is ‘Do your job, but before you walk away, ask them if they’d be willing to talk to a CHANCE representative,’” Dorland said. “CHANCE has agreed to meet us curbside so that we don’t walk away or leave them with a phone number or some appointment time down the road.”

But what does curbside service, 24 hours a day, seven days a week cost?

“We don’t cost the city anything,” said Jeff Blackford, executive director of CHANCE.

The organization has contracts with multiple municipalities to provide services for which it’s paid. It also accepts donations.

Currently, CHANCE has 11 staff members operating as part of the Solutions Team, making those curbside calls.

“We will get a call and go to the location,” Blackford said. “Sometimes we talk the person down. They’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, but there’s no need for the hospital. Or we will go to the hospital with them. The goal is to reduce police interaction because they’re going to the emergency room or jail and both are expensive.”

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The difference between a CHANCE counselor and a police officer, Blackford said, was the power dynamic and understanding.

Every CHANCE counselor isn’t a counselor at all. No one in the organization is licensed and very few have taken traditional counseling classes. Instead, they have a shared lived experience. Blackford is a self-described former addict.

“When someone reads something in a textbook, that’s all the knowledge they have,” he said. “But when you have lived it, you know exactly what they’re going through. I know what’s going on in their head and in their lives.”

He knows the hopelessness Guy tells Dorn he feels. Guy receives Social Security for an undisclosed reason, but it’s not enough to afford an apartment. Dawn, who’s just come home from visiting Jay, nods in agreement. It’s nearly impossible, they say. Guy tells Dorn they’ve been working with community organizations, but it’s hard to find a shelter that accepts married couples.

“There are very few places that have couple dorms,” Blackford says. “Signs of Victory has a couples dorm, but some couples will choose, for the sake of their health or their children, to go into separate facilities because it’s only for a few months. We think of the long term at CHANCE. Go into these facilities for four months to get on your feet and then get into housing.”

At the end of June, CHANCE was receiving about five phone calls a week from Albany police officers requesting curbside service. Blackford says those calls come 24 hours a day but not every one receives an immediate response.

“An officer will say this person just needs housing,” he said. “There’s not a lot we can do about housing at 2 a.m. Sometimes it’s telling them to come to CHANCE at 9 a.m. and we’ll get them some housing help.”

CHANCE has a contract for one bed at Helping Hands in Albany that it can place a person in immediately. But sometimes, Blackford says, housing help looks like first and last months’ rent or a bus ticket home.

The organization will pay up to $800 a month for rent, but it’s a one-time payment.

“If we can reduce the amount of people repeating contact with law enforcement by even 10%, we think that’s great,” Blackford says. “The goal is to get them off assistance like food stamps or HUD. We’ll get them bus tickets, housing applications. We’ll get them into treatment programs or transitional housing.”

Where to go from here

“It’s a wonderful, innovative approach. We may look into something in the future with peer support on the street,” said Ben Brubaker, administrative coordinator for CAHOOTS. He hadn’t heard of Albany’s City’s Solution Team, but the concept's right up his alley.

CAHOOTS was founded 30 years ago in Eugene as part of the Whitebird Clinic. It’s funded as part of the city’s public safety budget and as part of the program, each 911 call dispatched within the city has the option of including a crisis worker on the call. It’s what Brubaker describes as the “mobile crisis unit.”

“We started with a few days a week and then went to 12 hours a day and now we’re 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “Cities are asking how to replicate this model because it saves money for law enforcement.”

CAHOOTS is now running two vans in Eugene and one in Springfield, which is funded through state grants. They track every call and can make estimates on how well the program is working to divert unneeded emergency room visits.

As for the peer-support approach issued by CHANCE, Brubaker says he’s seen the model popping up nationally as law enforcement personnel is routinely becoming, by default, first responders to mental health crises.

“It’s a broken system,” he says.

The City Solution Team is working to fix the system locally. Since its inception, law enforcement and city staff have made 33 referrals to CHANCE, which resulted in three people obtaining identification cards, two being placed in housing, seven receiving a bus ticket, six getting treatment support and 23 receiving basic needs such as food.

“Your Police Department is very much involved and we’re in the game,” Dorn told the city council. Plans to expand the team’s efforts are already underway.

Staff at Samaritan Health Services facilities now are receiving training to refer individuals to CHANCE.

“It’s not always a police problem, it’s a people problem,” Dorland said of expanding training. “We’ve been in talks with Linn County Jail. Our goal is to expand this into their front door. We’re working with jail staff to make these referrals at the time of a person’s release so when they come out of the jail doors at 2 a.m. they’re not just released into the community without someone waiting for them with a direction.”

Signs of Victory has offered to make sandwiches and keep them on hand for individuals released from jail in the middle of the night in an effort to head-off what Dorland calls “survival crimes” where someone may steal food or another basic need.

“This is very much a partnership and work in progress, but the word is getting out there,” Dorland said. “As officers and city staff speak to community members who are homeless or in need, people are responding more often with, ‘I’m already working with CHANCE' or 'I’m aware of what CHANCE offers.’ This is giving more and more people the power of choice for their lives. We have a long way to go, and it’s very much a voluntary process. But the word is getting out there. We care, you have options, and we’ll connect you to people who can help you, right now.”

Leaving the neighborhood

There’s been a recent rash of timber theft on the trail and before Dorn hands Guy his latest citation, he asks if he’s heard chain saws late at night.

Guy assures him that he hasn’t and he hasn’t seen anything either and he would have seen something — at least on his trail cam.

“People come through and take things,” he says. “They don’t care if you’re in there sleeping.” He gestures to his set of tents, explaining that he’s used some of his SSI money to buy the camera in the hopes of catching the thieves.

Dawn’s the first to feel the raindrops that rustle through the leaves overhead as she stands in her bare feet. Dorn is the second and makes a move to leave, but Guy has a question.

“Where are we supposed to go?” he asks, citing Dorn’s assertion that they’re currently standing on city property. “It’s not in the city, but it’s the city, so how far do we have to go?”

Dorn tries to be vague. He tells them to go to the library and pull up a map.

As he walks back over the hump and down the road, he explains that he tries to avoid identifying a “safe” place, away from citations and violations, for homeless individuals like Guy and Dawn to camp.

As an afterthought, he adds, “I like them. They’re a nice couple.”


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