Tuesday night’s Corvallis-Benton County Public Library public forum on homelessness turned into a bit of a pep rally as a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people discussed the problem.
And expressed frustration. And got emotional. And asked good questions about possible solutions.
The Corvallis Sustainability Coalition sponsored the event, which was designed to educate the public about a 48-page report on the topic put together by the League of Women Voters of Corvallis.
Judy Ball, the lead author of the report, summarized its key findings: That there are somewhere between 850 and 1,250 homeless individuals in Corvallis during the course of a year and that the services the city offers do not make it a magnet for the homeless.
“If it was easy, it would have already been done, and it hasn’t been done,” said Ball about the challenge.
“This has become a political question,” Ball said, “and it’s going to take people going to their political representatives and demanding something different. And it’s important for us not to equate homelessness with the scruffy guy hanging out by the post office. People who are homeless are just like us.”
Ball and others spoke of the growing emergency given that people are counting on the men’s cold weather shelter operation to open Nov. 1, but there is no location, funding or structure in place.
One audience member noted that there are a lot of empty buildings in town that could be used for a shelter.
“Shawn, would you like to talk about it?” Ball asked, gesturing to Shawn Collins, the project manager for the Housing Opportunities Action Council.
“Not really,” said Collins before taking the microphone and noting the variety of challenges his group faces, including the zoning designations for buildings and proximity to businesses, schools and “other challenging environments.”
And then there is NIMBY, the “not in my backyard” syndrome.
“Are people willing to sell or lease for this use?” Collins said.
The answer, right now, is no.
Karen Rockwell, the executive director of Benton Habitat for Humanity, worked with Ball on the report. Rockwell expressed frustration at the lack of progress given that in addition to the men’s cold weather shelter challenge, Community Outreach Inc. will be closing its emergency shelter operation Saturday because of funding cuts.
“This is about people we haven’t been paying attention to for 18 months now,” Rockwell said. “I’m getting emotional here. We need the whole community pulling together. We have more nonprofits here than any town in the world. You need to care about this as much as parks and recreation or The Arts Center. We need help, and you need to start it,” she closed to strong applause.
Ball has gotten up close and personal with the homeless issue during the year in which the league and its housing committee worked on the report. Ball visited homeless camps under bridges and volunteered at the men’s shelter on Southwest Fourth Street.
Ball said the three needs expressed by the individuals in the camps were:
• They didn’t want to be made to move.
• They needed a place to dump their trash.
• They needed porta-potties.
Ball related a story from her shelter experience of a gentleman who was desperately searching for an outlet to plug in his phone so he could set his alarm so he could get to work on time. The takeaway? Homeless people also have jobs.
Ball also mentioned men in wheelchairs and walkers “that I was so glad that we were there for with a hot meal and a real bed.”
During the hour of questions that followed Ball’s presentation, audience members brought up grant funding, roles that could be played by Samaritan Health Services and Oregon State University, how other communities have made inroads on the problem and all manner of questions on why Corvallis cannot build more housing, particularly affordable housing.
The tone was positive, but answers remain elusive.
In a poignant summary of the challenges, Ball paraphrased comments from Kenny Lowe, a housing coordinator with Benton County who has volunteered on several advisory groups battling the issue.
“If we are going to solve this problem, we can’t keep doing the same thing,” Lowe told Ball. “If we want to get out of this crisis, we need to try a different way.”