The weather is getting colder and wetter. We are in a coronavirus pandemic. And there are hundreds if not thousands of homeless people in the mid-valley seeking shelter and other basic needs.
What is to be done?
“Realistically there are going to be a lot of people outside this year,” said Shawn Collins, who helps manage the Corvallis men’s cold weather shelter for the Unity Shelter nonprofit. “No matter who you talk to the forecast is that there will be more people out there.”
And the higher caseload comes amid tougher barriers to serve the population.
• Capacity at the Corvallis men’s shelter, which opens Sunday night, has been reduced from 50 beds to 15 because of social distancing requirements.
• Helping Hands in Albany has reduced its capacity from 135 to 100, although the nonprofit recently opened a warming center that accommodates another 25 people.
• The Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center has had to completely rework its operations model because the virus has forced it to severely limit the number of people that it can let inside its Southwest Fourth Street location. Still, it is finding a way to assist 70 guests per day.
• The city of Corvallis has set the wheels in motion for clamping down on illegal camping, which has flourished amid a hands-off approach since the pandemic hit in March. A September city inventory, the first of its kind, found more than 200 camps, mainly on city property such as Avery Park, Pioneer Park and near the BMX track behind the men’s shelter (see chart). City officials are under no illusion that they found all the sites and they also don’t know how many people those camps are hosting.
• There is good news, too. Stone Soup, the long-time Corvallis church-based meal service, has received nearly $80,000 in COVID-related relief funds, has hired paid staff for the first time and is serving at two new meal sites.
Here is a closer look at the situation:
Corvallis men’s shelter
It is about 12:30 p.m. on a sunny and pleasant Wednesday. The temperature is about 50 degrees, but there already have been below-freezing nights for those living in the tent city behind the shelter on Southeast Chapman Place.
The tent city has grown dramatically since the spring. The city inventory, led by the Parks and Recreation Department, spotted nearly 70 camps in the area, a mix of tents, RVs and vehicles.
“We might have to move everything,” said Grant Garewal, who was first in line for the shelter’s showers, which open at 1 p.m. “And we’ve already had a couple of nights when it has been below freezing.”
Garewal said he was “waiting on some housing,” although he also said he is considering going back to California.
Second in line was Mike Brown. He, like everyone else at the shelter, was masked. And the shower line contains marked slots that mandate social distancing.
Brown admits he faces challenges because “he recently went to jail for some stupid stuff.”
Brown is hoping to find better access to food boxes and, like Garewal, is hoping to score a housing voucher.
He waves his arm over the fence at the shelter toward the BMX track to note where his camp is, but adds “I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to live there.”
David Estes, third in line, is having a frustrating time finding work. His employment background includes poultry and food processing as well as restaurant work.
“I’ll do anything,” he said. “I’ve applied at all the restaurants.”
Also frustrating is the challenge of finding transportation to and from work if he can secure a job.
“I can still survive here,” he said. “I’m already doing it right now. I’m keeping warm.”
Up on a ladder on the west side of the old Hanson tire factory is Harry Reich, the shelter’s full-time manager. One of his tasks on this day is to install some new vents to improve the air circulation in the shelter. This the fourth year the Hanson site has been used as the men’s winter shelter. Every year shelter managers seem to find some improvement to make. Adding fire sprinklers. Better storage. Improved heat.
“It’s come a long way,” said Collins, “but we’re still operating on a conditional use permit with the city. We just got it today (Wednesday). To get a permanent one we will need a capital campaign.”
Key additions that shelter mangers are hoping to add are more toilets and showers plus, said Collins “some code-compliance stuff. We have a chunk of work ahead of us, but we’re on a path.”
The work, Collins said, will cost approximately $200,000.
Reich took the reporter and a photographer on a tour of the sleeping area. Most of the bunk beds are situated such that the occupant has a wall on one side. Two rows of beds run in parallel down the middle of the room, with the shelter planning sheets at the sides and foot of each bed to give the men the proper protection.
The communal dining tables are gone. The men will be given TV trays with which to eat their meals at their bunks.
The shelter is moving to a schedule of nearly 24-hour operations. Clients can check in at 6 p.m. and they must leave by 9 a.m. Reich said the shelter will give priority for beds to the most vulnerable in the population.
From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. the shelter will be closed for cleanup. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. the facility will serve as a “hygiene center,” the role it played after the pandemic shut down the overnight option on March 19.
“On March 20 we reopened as the hygiene center,” Reich said. The center offered showers, laundry, food and hand washing.
From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. there is additional cleanup … and then the cycle starts again.
“We’re trying to do the best we can and not get anybody sick,” Reich said, who added “we’ve been lucky so far that none of our guys have gotten it.”
The men’s shelter is scheduled to close for overnight clients at the end of March, although Reich and Collins are hopeful that that deadline can be extended.
In addition, Collins said that Unity Shelter hopes to place 15 more micro shelters in the community by Dec. 1. Reich said he hopes three or four could be placed in the Hanson parking lot. Collins added that the shelters would be available to both men and women.
Emma Deane, executive director, of Helping Hands on Southeast Ninth Avenue, noted another unique challenge in 2020 — refugees from the catastrophic wildfires that raged in Linn and Marion counties and hit the Santiam Canyon particularly hard.
“We also have seen more medically fragile people, people in mental health crisis and people struggling with active addiction.,” Deane said, while also noting the difficulty of balancing the housing, meal and supportive services the center provides with the guidelines coming from the state.
One huge plus for Helping Hands is that, unlike the Corvallis men’s shelter, the Albany shelter runs year-round.
Deane also sees the effort that is taking place around her.
“I am so proud of the team at Albany Helping Hands for their proactive work and continuous problem solving,” she said. “I am also so thankful that our residents have remained flexible and vigilant in following the ever-changing safety guidelines. We have been able to maintain a COVID-19 non-outbreak status at Albany Helping Hands. We are so grateful for the community’s support.”
Albany also has set up a “solutions” team that includes nonprofits, city and county agencies and law enforcement.
Sgt. Daniel Jones, the Albany Police Department liaison with the group, has seen the problems first-hand.
“I have run into many individuals who have COVID and are pretty sick in their camps,” he said. “Many of them are unable to obtain services directly, because of the lack of mobility. In almost all of those cases, there were others with them that were providing food and resources until they were able to be healthy enough to move about again. Those found with illnesses and COVID were not required to move their illegal camps until they were healthy enough to do so.”
Another challenge in Albany — and other communities — is that there are homeless individuals who prefer to live off the grid. As well as others whose behavior makes it hard for social service providers to assist.
“There are many challenges for the homeless as it relates to the Northwest winters,” Jones said. “The biggest is the ability to stay warm and dry. We constantly refer people to the shelters, or sources that may have housing available. Some of those we are attempting to help appreciate the direction and referrals, others are unwilling to look at services, because of the rules that come with housing, such as no alcohol or drugs.”
Sometimes, Jones said, the problem can feel like a feedback loop that just keeps repeating.
“Law enforcement is often tasked to deal with the immediate issues, such as a camp and trespasser on someone’s property, an illegal camp site in a park, or possibly someone passed out or sleeping on the sidewalk blocking pedestrian traffic,” he said. “But that police response doesn’t really contribute to addressing the issue, it just moves it to another place to be dealt with again.”
The Room at the Inn, the Corvallis women’s shelter at the First United Methodist Church, has joined the men’s shelter in moving toward year-round service. The shelter remained open after the usual April 1 closing date this spring and has increased capacity from 18 to 22 by expanding into the gym.
Sara Power, the executive director, said that the group was hoping to accommodate more than 22 guests but “wouldn't have room for tables for eating or our activities area if we added more beds.”
Power added that the shelter plans to operate year-round “for the foreseeable future,” although she notes that, as is the case with the men’s shelter, “our permits with the city are temporary permits only.”
The Room at Inn also has added four micro-shelters in the church parking lot. Power said that will be the capacity for now. City code changes allowed the units to be placed at area churches with the goal that their occupants would be transitioning toward permanent housing.
“We expect to have to turn away more women, since we have been pretty full all summer,” Power said. “That is not fun, and there are not many options available for folks. We continue to work hard to get women into permanent housing, and we hope that more rentals will open up with OSU’s student occupation lower. We have yet to see that happen.”
In the meantime Power and her crew continue to focus on the basics, such as “keeping the floors clean. And we need more blankets for the winter. Preferably fleece that are easy to wash and dry. And warm socks!”
Camping is illegal anywhere inside the Corvallis city limits, but there has been no enforcement of the regulations since the pandemic hit in March.
In September city staff brought a four-phase plan to the City Council for its review. The strategy started with education and outreach but aimed to start posting and cleaning out campsites in phase two and by phase three have limited all camps to within 50 yards of the men’s shelter on Southeast Chapman. The final phase would eliminate all the camps by the end of the year.
The City Council said no. Councilors discussed the proposal at their Sept. 21 and Oct. 19 meetings before voting 9-0 at the second meeting to direct staff to limit the cleanups only to camps that posed high risk for fire, flooding or environmental damage to riparian corridors.
In addition, the council, led by Nancy Wyse (Ward 6) and Charles Maughan (Ward 2), directed staff to work with social service providers and Benton County to find other shelter options and report back to the council. No date has been set for that update and City Manager Mark Shepard cautioned the council that other city work will have to be delayed to move forward on the camping directive.
“I’m frustrated,” Maughan said. “We were told by city staff that the plan just puts us back where we were before COVID. But COVID is still around. We’re in a crisis here.”
The staff report on the illegal camping proposals included an inventory that was conducted in September by managers with Parks & Recreation, Public Works, fire and police.
Karen Emery, director of Parks & Rec, noted in an interview that “the inventory is a dynamic document and will change daily.”
Emery also noted that “there has been an increase of people moving to Corvallis. And significant increase in cars and RVs camping in the park system.”
As noted above the city does not know how many individuals are housed in the 200 camps that were found and that no inventory has yet been conducted at high-use areas such as Crystal Lake Park and Berg Park on the east side of the Willamette River.
About 45 of the high-priority camps still will be cleaned up, but the remainder are in limbo pending any updates from the city or the council.
Shepard, meanwhile, noted that some of the camps in the inventory are on railroad or Oregon Department of Transportation property and that those groups “might move ahead with cleanups at their own pace.”
Parks & Rec listed four criteria that were used in the prioritization of the camps:
• Life safety: Risk to life due to fire and/or flooding.
• Environmental sensitivity: Risk of debris and objects being washed into waterways.
• Public health: Presence of human excrement and proximity to waterways.
• Public safety: Evidence of dangerous activity such as drug use and needles.
The meal service has been in Corvallis for 38 years, mainly offering meals at the First Christian Church and St. Marys Catholic Church. Stone Soup will continue its offering at those sites while adding service at the men’s shelter on Chapman and at the South Corvallis Food Bank.
Stone Soup got a huge financial boost from a city of Corvallis community development block grant of $43,973 and picked up another $35,000 from the Oregon Health Authority. Both awards came from federal coronavirus relief funds.
The cash infusion has enabled Stone Soup to hire a food service manager, its first paid employee. Caitlin Garets, a Corvallis native, began working in the position Oct. 1 with the responsibility for coordinating and overseeing service of all meals. Garets previously worked for nine years at Nearly Normal’s Gonzo Cuisine and has experience as a community volunteer and event organizer.
Stone Soup now offers 14 meals to go each week, said President Sara Ingle. Volume has risen from 2,323 meals served in March to 3,581 in August, with a slight dip to 3,498 in September, Ingle said.
Helping out in the expansion, Ingle said, have been Valley Catering, the Linn Benton Food Share, Sage Garden and local farmers and businesses.
“From my lens the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center is doing great work,” said Aleita Hass-Holcombe, the longtime volunteer coordinator and board president.
COVID-19 has placed huge limitations on the center, which before the pandemic served a critical role as a daytime hangout for the homeless and others. The center is open from 9 a.m. to noon and appointments with its service provider partners take place from noon to 2 p.m.
The center is seeing 70 guests per day. The Benton County Health Department administered flu shots on Thursday. Masks are required to enter the building or the parking lot. Guests start at a hand-washing station and then receive meal, mail and other services from staffers behind a Plexiglas window. Temperature checks are required for the service provider sessions.
“The number of folks inside our building is very limited but so far it seems like we are meeting folks’ needs,” Hass Holcombe said.
The center no longer can call on many of its volunteers for safety reasons, but executive director Allison Hobgood, the center’s first paid employee, praised the assistance of interns from Oregon State University and Portland State University as well as those volunteers still able to assist.
Other organizations that have been providing assistance at the center include Corvallis Housing First, Samaritan Health Services, the Community Service Consortium and Cornerstone Associates, which provides COVID-19 outreach and awareness for guests, Hobgood said.
“In the last couple of months, we have been able to help folks get their COVID-19 stimulus checks, register to vote, and get counted in the Census,” Hobgood said, although the Homeless Employment Launching Program has been put on hold through the winter months.
“The biggest challenge coming into winter shelter season is the lack of warm, indoor spaces for people to inhabit. With the public library and CDDC's inside space unavailable (and with decreased capacity at the men's shelter), there are no designated spaces for folks to take respite from the cold and rain and get some warmth during the day," Hobgood said.