Sgt. Joel Goodwin stood next to a blue tarp covering the entrance to a green tent and projected his voice, informing any potential inhabitants that he was posting their camp for illegal camping.
The Corvallis police officer then stepped aside, giving the platform to Kevin Weaver, a homeless advocate at First Christian Church. While no one emerged from the tent to speak with Weaver during this encounter last week, the collaboration between the sergeant and the advocate seeks to bring services to homeless people in the field.
“We want them to find not just a different place to be but a better place to be,” said Goodwin, who is a member of the Police Department’s community livability unit. “We would like that better than just pushing them to another place. We need to break that cycle.”
Last April 12, Goodwin and another officer were posting notices at multiple camps near Northeast Circle Boulevard and Northeast Walnut Boulevard. Weaver was accompanied by Shawn Collins, project manager of the Corvallis-Benton County Housing Opportunities Action Council. They say the collaboration between the city and the service providers is new and hope it will lead to solutions for chronic homelessness in the community.
“It’s becoming more of a community effort" than just an issue involving nonprofit organizations, Weaver said.
Aleita Hass-Holcomb is president of one of those nonprofit organizations, the Daytime Drop-in Center at First Christian Church. She attributes the increased collaboration to Collins' Housing Opportunities Action Council, which is led jointly by Benton County and the city of Corvallis.
“Collaboration with the city is something we’ve always dreamed about,” Hass-Holcomb said.
Nevertheless, she said she experiences cognitive dissonance over working with police officers as they post camps. But Matt Gordon, the pastor at First Christian Church, said he sees the Police Department moving beyond just writing tickets to getting to know homeless people and providing them with information about resources in the community.
He said building those relationships makes it easier to move people who are experiencing homelessness into the services they need, whether it’s getting onto a list for housing, meeting with a mental health counselor or entering drug or alcohol treatment.
“It’s exciting,” Gordon said.
He said homeless people still are being moved from campsite to campsite, but that police and social workers are engaging those people in the process and trying to get a sense of what services they require. Gordon said serving homeless people where they are, whether that’s at a camp or in the drop-in center, is more effective than just leaving behind a card with a phone number to call.
“People aren’t going to make those appointments,” he said. “Not because they’re lazy, not because they can’t keep appointments, but because they’re surviving day to day. And the weeks and the days kind of blur together when you’re focused on survival.”
Gordon said other organizations follow this model, including health care navigators from Samaritan Health Services, who visit the drop-in center twice a week to connect people with primary care physicians and register them for the Oregon Health Plan. He said providers from Benton County Behavioral Health also visit the drop-in center.
Mary Wagner, a 47-year-old woman who has been homeless in Corvallis for 10 years, said she’s seen an increase in community services offered to people experiencing homelessness.
“Things have gotten lot better than it was before,” Wagner said recently at the drop-in center, which she said she visits for three hours each day to charge her cellphone. The rest of the time she spends at her campsite with her Staffordshire terrier.
Wagner said the city provides trash bags to people so they can keep their camps clean. She said Stone Soup provides meals and other organizations provide tents, tarps and blankets.
“This town has in the last 10 years become a lot better with helping a lot of people,” Wagner said. “Because I have seen it. I’ve seen people who were homeless and were really bad off. And then they get into a program and now they’re drug free, they got a place to live and they have a job.”
Goodwin said the camps officers posted were on both public and private property. He said city workers would clean the public property, while a contractor hired by the private property owner would clean that area. The camps were littered with garbage, including empty cigarette packs, bike parts, headphones, a frying pan, an empty milk jug, blankets, a lawn mower and much more.
“It’s not unlike what we’ve seen,” Collins said. “It’s pretty rough conditions to live in. It’s hard to imagine life in these circumstances.”
He said the lawn mower, as well electronic cords and a cat tree, suggest that some people are trying to rebuild some semblance of home or who are holding onto items until they acquire housing.
“When you think about the long path that got someone out here, it’s a long path to get back,” Collins said.
While she's optimistic about the work being done in Corvallis, Hass-Holcomb said there are more services the community needs, such as a mental health crisis response team like CAHOOTS in Eugene. She also said the city needs more Housing First units and entry-level jobs.