Kelly Cleland knows where he would be if he didn’t have the men’s cold weather shelter in Corvallis.
“I’d be in really bad shape,” Cleland said on a freezing January night at the shelter, before reconsidering his answer. “No, if it wasn’t for this place, I’d be dead.”
The 50-year-old Cleland is one of about 25 men who have stayed at the men’s cold weather shelter on Southwest Fourth Street in Corvallis nearly every night since it opened Nov. 1, trying to escape one of the most brutal winters in the city’s history. This year alone, 110 men have stayed at the shelter for at least one night, according to Corvallis Housing First, the organization that runs the shelter. And for the past five seasons, the Fourth Street location has provided a refuge for an average of 30 men every night.
But this season is slated to be the last for the Fourth Street site. And there are no firm plans in place for a men’s shelter for next season. So every man at the shelter is afraid he might be left out in the cold next November.
Like Cleland, 54-year-old Wayne Bascom has stayed at the shelter almost every night this season. And, like Cleland, Bascom is convinced that he won't survive if there's no shelter in place next season.
“We’re f---ed,” said Bascom. “You want to know what it’s like to be homeless? It’s cold. And it ... sucks."
The controversial Fourth Street location will not be available next winter. The Corvallis City Council passed an amendment in September opposing further city funding for the site, which has posed livability concerns for nearby businesses and homeowners and has been the focus of several police crackdowns since it opened five years ago.
The site itself is expected to see many changes over the next two years: Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services, a private nonprofit housing developer, reached a verbal agreement with Corvallis Housing First in November to purchase both the shelter property and the car wash next door to build affordable housing units.
Jim Moorefield, executive director for Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services, said building permanent, affordable housing is the key to solving homelessness. But while Corvallis Housing First, Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services and other local organizations are continuing the focus on getting more homeless people into permanent housing, Moorefield acknowledged that the men who depend on the cold weather shelter still will need somewhere to go next winter.
"These men are ideal candidates for getting permanent housing. Their health problems are significant. They're dying," Moorefield said. "And it’s clear that a system that gets people into permanent housing still will need a shelter to make sure that people have somewhere safe and warm to stay until they get into permanent housing."
As it stands, no one knows for certain if there will be a new shelter when the weather gets cold again.
Pressure to act
Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber, who has continually made housing and homelessness a priority, said with November just a few months away, the clock is ticking.
"We may have to very clearly express to the community in the next two months that we have a crisis brewing," Traber said. "If it’s the same in a couple of months, I'd say we have a crisis on our hands."
At least one group is looking to ensure that homeless men will have somewhere to go next winter: A 12-member workgroup, comprised of members of the Housing Opportunities Action Council, has been charged with exploring options for a new men’s cold weather.
The Housing Opportunities Action Council (HOAC), which is made up of 20 local agencies and organizations, is the committee overseeing the county’s 10-year plan to address homelessness, which was originally adopted in 2009.
Shawn Collins, who was hired in November as the project manager for the council in part to help find a new shelter location, said the workgroup is meeting regularly, and its members know that time is of the essence.
“We are not going to leave men out in the cold next fall,” Collins said. “We still have a lot of questions to answer, but everyone agrees we need to find something.”
Finding something will mean answering the three major questions that have troubled every homeless advocate in Corvallis for years: Where will the shelter be located? Who will operate it? And who’s going to pay for it?
“If we have the best of all possible managing operators but we can’t get a location, then we’re stuck. And if we get a location and can’t get a managing operator we’re stuck,” Collins said. “It’s why we’re trying to look at it in January instead of September. We’ve still got some runway. But it is getting shorter every day.”
Location, location, location
The location question isn’t a new one.
Weeks before the City Council’s decision in September to reopen the Fourth Street location for this winter, Traber and Benton County Commissioner Anne Schuster spearheaded an effort to find another location for the shelter, but the talks stalled because of the approaching November deadline.
A few weeks before that, city councilors heard a proposal from Community Outreach Inc. that included multiple satellite sites for the shelter operation. But the approach proved impractical, again because of the tight deadline, and discussions were put on hold.
In 2015, a group known as Citizens for Protecting Corvallis, a group opposing the Fourth Street location, met with Corvallis Housing First to discuss alternative sites, including two near the Corvallis Municipal Airport and the Flomatcher Inc. property near Alan Berg Park. The groups announced they had reached a deadlock in December 2015.
But Collins’ hiring in November and the workgroup’s formation have renewed talks of finding a new site. And unlike those previous efforts, the workgroup has several months more lead time to find a solution.
Collins said he is confident the workgroup will find a location in time.
“There needs to be a safe warm place for people to sleep and I have yet to hear anyone who disagrees with that,” Collins said. “The extent of services that are tied to that, the relative luxury of those facilities, those are debatable points. But no one wants to see people sleeping under the bridge or dying of hypothermia.”
Collins said another advantage to the talks this year is that the workgroup is fully exploring different models, including multiple smaller sites and rotating locations, that should open up further possibilities.
“Whether it’s one location or multiple locations, it’s part of the puzzle that needs to be solved,” he said. “I don’t think we have answers for that now, but we have a lot of ideas.”
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With previous meetings on homelessness drawing capacity crowds and several groups popping up to oppose various locations, Collins said workgroup members are remaining tight-lipped on potential locations — for now.
“Frankly, because of the fallout from last year and how contentious (the Fourth Street location) was, folks are a little hesitant to raise their hand and say 'we’ll throw our hat in.' It’s a big risk,” Collins said. “If we can’t get to a point where we can find a location, then we’ve got a real problem as a community.”
Who will run it?
Corvallis Housing First currently operates the men’s cold weather shelter on Fourth Street, but officials announced in January 2016 that they would be shifting the group’s focus to “permanent supportive housing” and only would offer limited emergency or short-term housing.
“At the end of this season, we’re going to be out of the shelter business,” said Brad Smith, board president for Corvallis Housing First. “We are not actively looking to identify a site or operate it. I have indicated to HOAC that if a site is identified, we would be willing to consider being an operator, but it would take board approval and we’d have to talk about it very carefully.”
Smith is well aware of the time crunch.
“One of the greatest strengths of Corvallis is the huge level of participation and involvement of people,” Smith said at a recent meeting discussing the shelter. “But it’s also one of the biggest detriments, because things get discussed and discussed and discussed. Well, we don’t have three years to figure these things out.”
Community Outreach had been part of operation talks in recent years, but Executive Director Kari Whitacre said the group has no plans currently to operate a men’s shelter next season.
“After last year’s situation, we really just stepped back and looked within our own agency and decided it was best to focus on our mission of families and veterans. So we’re sort of out of the conversation,” Whitacre said.
As far as that "sort of?" Whitacre explained that Community Outreach still plans to continue to operate its emergency temporary shelter for families nightly November through March.
“But we’re continuing to see our numbers grow here too,” Whitacre said. “The need is outweighing services.”
Whitacre added that, if no other solutions are offered for a men’s shelter before November, the city could follow the alternative proposal presented last year.
“The proposal we put in front of the City Council was to open a men’s cold weather shelter regardless of sobriety at local area congregations or businesses to take five or six individuals during these times when loss of life is evident,” Whitacre said.
Whitacre couldn’t say whether Community Outreach would “be willing to lead the charge” on the proposal, but she strongly urged that the city consider the possibility if all other solutions fall short.
“Loss of life is a totally different conversation than services or a temporary home for five months,” she said. “Nobody is willing to let people die.”
Collins said he is optimistic that an organization, or several organizations, will step forward before November.
“COI is changing course and CHF is changing course, but there are a lot of organizations in town. We’re not out of options,” he said. “What makes me hopeful is that nobody has drawn a line in the sand that said they would not be involved in this.”
But the same issue of possible negative community feedback that is creating difficulties in finding a new location creates additional difficulties in finding a potential managing operator for the site.
“Given the city’s actions last year, I don’t see any private organizations taking on that role,” Smith said. “Which by default leaves the city or county and that opens up a whole new conversation.”
Mayor Traber said that’s not a likely solution.
“Running homeless shelters is not one of the core responsibilities of the city,” he said. “In some sense, that’s why we have the almost $400,000 of social services funds. So I don’t think I see the city doing it. But the city is trying to enable it, facilitate it and support it.”
Finding a location and a managing operator will be essential for the shelter, but the most timely issue for the workgroup remains funding. In the next two months, the City Council and Benton County will be making budget decisions for the upcoming year.
“We’ve got a budget framework drafted that we’ve shared with the city and county,” Collins said this past week at a meeting on homelessness. “The timeline is very short and we’re going to be nailing that down even if we don’t have any other questions answered as for as location or management.”
According to data provided by Corvallis Housing First, the men’s shelter costs about $85,800 to operate annually. The costs include $39,600 a year to operate and maintain the Fourth Street building and $46,200 per year on personnel. The effort is paid for through a Community Development Block Grant, the Corvallis Police Department and a social services grant totaling about $27,200. The other $58,600 is financed through Corvallis Housing First fundraising and community donations, according to CHF data.
The September proposal from Community Outreach was estimated to cost more than $110,000, but included comprehensive coverage including case management and mental health counseling, and drug and alcohol services.
Last year, the city released about $49,000 in funds to battle homelessness.
Collins said the cost to the community of not having a men’s shelter would be much greater than any dollar figure.
“We are poorer as a community because we have this level of poverty and when we have a group in our community that suffers in our midst, we all suffer,” he said. “If we’re going to hold to the ideals we have in Corvallis as a community that cares, we can’t let those that are the least fortunate among us sleep in the cold.”
Collins said it was more important that the workgroup find a solution quickly than to wait for a perfect one.
“Because of the budget cycle and November not that far away, we don’t have a lot of time to create any more of a permanent solution than we’ve had in the past,” he said. “We will have shelter services next year. We have to.”