Since the city of Corvallis first unveiled its plan to resume posting unsanctioned campsites for unhoused people, city officials have continuously referred to the plan as one developed with and reliant on the support of “partners.”
As representatives of organizations that work with unsheltered people, we wonder who these “partners” are.
We learned of this plan not from the city, but from a Sept. 11 email from the Benton County Health Department. On Sept. 14, city and county staff members presented the plan during a virtual meeting and — in response to a request from service providers — convened another meeting on Sept. 18. Neither of these meetings seemed dialogue-based, and both lacked any sense of collaboration or desire to find creative solutions. (The City Council didn’t discuss the plan until Sept. 21, when councilors expressed dismay that they hadn’t heard about it until the week before.)
But, at every meeting, the service providers attending — those of us who actually work with people who are unsheltered — have rejected the plan as inhumane.
The city intends to return to the practice it followed before the pandemic: posting and shutting down unsanctioned campsites for unhoused people (except for locations near the men’s shelter). “Ideally,” the plan says, the shelter and other nonprofit organizations such as faith communities will pick up the slack by installing 15 microshelters — structures the size of garden sheds that can house one person or a couple.
We believe the city's plan is unconscionable, moving a medically vulnerable population in the midst of a pandemic with no sanctioned shelter space to offer them. This action will have devastating effects on folks living outdoors. This action is not human-centered and has not been developed in a coordinated way with those who serve the public health. We are aware that the city is paying to build 15 microshelters, but this alone is not a sufficient response to the need for shelter.
This problematic plan and its representation of its work with “partners” speaks to the city’s systemic failures to respond to our unhoused neighbors. We frequently hear elected officials and city staff discuss this issue using language that suggests bias and discrimination. Furthermore, while acknowledging that posting of the campsites is not ideal, officials seem willing to return to it during a moment of increasing crisis because there is not enough political leadership or moral imagination to do otherwise.
Our community can do better; we must do better! As agencies who care for and strive to serve our houseless neighbors, we cannot participate in efforts to move forward in the manner the city’s plan outlines.
We invite city leaders and staff to go back to the drawing board and work with us to develop a program that begins with the folks affected. Let’s ask what the needs are and develop an empathetic response that does not begin with pushing folks to the margins of the city or further into the forests (where fire danger is even greater and services harder to locate).
City leaders also must investigate using parks and natural areas to establish the kind of managed camping that has been successful at Safe Camp (at First Congregational United Church of Christ). The city charter allows for temporary uses at parks and natural areas for up to two years. The question of whether the city charter will permit camping as a temporary park use during pandemic must be asked. City Manager Mark Shepard had authority to allow overnight camping during the 2017 eclipse; are the pandemic and the homelessness crisis not compelling enough reasons for him to exert his authority again?
The Rev. Jennifer Butler is senior pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ, the site of Safe Camp. Jim Swinyard, a former Benton County sheriff, serves on the SafePlace Steering Committee and is active with the Room at the Inn shelter for women at First United Methodist Church. This opinion piece also was signed by Aleita Hass-Holcombe of the Daytime Drop-In Center; Lisa Hawash of the SafePlace Steering Committee; Sara Ingle of Stone Soup; the Rev. Jill McAllister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis; and the Rev. Dr. Tim Roach of the SafePlace Steering Committee.