Efforts by Corvallis and Benton County to provide shelter solutions for the homeless are taking shape.
The Corvallis City Council and the Benton County Board of Commissioners met for an hour last Thursday. It was the fourth meeting of the two groups to work on implementing the recommendations of the Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity Advisory Board (HOPE).
The piece of HOPE’s work the most resistant to unknotting has been its recommendation to establish a 24/7/365 sheltering system.
The city and county plan to put together a task force on the topic, led by Paul Bilotta, community development director for Corvallis and Suzanne Hoffman, interim director of the Benton County Health Department. The group will be filled out with social service providers still to be named.
“This is a roll up your sleeves and get something done kind of group,” Bilotta said. “It’s not the type of team that is going to meet once a month.”
Elected officials and staffers from the city and county also heard a report from Brigetta Olson, the housing and neighborhood services manager for Corvallis, on possible solutions — and their cost (see chart).
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Olson broke down the problem into five possible options: tents, prefab micro shelters, micro shelters, hotel rooms and purchasing a building. She also noted estimated costs for each solution while also including pieces for which no estimate is available yet.
Those cost estimates range from $420,000 to shelter 100 individuals for five months in hotel rooms to more than $2.6 million for an acquired building. No discussion of where the funds will come from was entertained. That, clearly, was a question for another day.
Here is a quick look at the five options:
There was virtually unanimous opposition to using tents, although some of the elected officials noted that short-term use of tents might be acceptable as long as the long-term plan called for transitioning to something else. The best thing about tents is that officials can make this solution happen the quickest.
Bilotta said that an inventory of Corvallis parks had been done and once those with natural resource/hazard issues were eliminated a list of 10 or so remained for possible camping. Recruiting an acre of so each from five parks could accommodate the approximately 100 campers the city and county are hoping to work with.
Use of parks also could lead to problems with the Corvallis city charter, which added a voter-approved amendment in 2017 that limits use of park land for non-park uses.
“The charter allows temporary use of parks for other uses,” said Corvallis City Manager Mark Shepard, “but it leaves us open to legal challenges for violation of the spirit of the charter.”
Prefab micro shelters
Shawn Collins of Unity Shelter tried this concept with a small office building that was planned to be part of a managed camping facility on property north of the men’s shelter. The unit, which consisted, essentially, of polystyrene, Collins pronounced “unlivable.”
Unity Shelter is the group which provides oversight for the men’s shelter on Southeast Chapman Place, the women’s shelter at the First United Methodist Church and the Safe Camp micro shelter community at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on West Hills Road.
The elected officials also expressed a preference for locally built micro shelters.
These units are a popular choice these days, with Collins noting at the Sept. 2 meeting that Unity Shelter will be putting 12 more on line in the coming months. Micro shelters already are in place at the men’s shelter, Safe Camp, the women’s shelter and a handful of area churches.
The units usually contain a bed, three storage tubs, a table, chair, a rod on which to hang clothes, a fire extinguisher, electricity and a heater as well as a ramp for the disabled.
Collins said that even with the addition of the 12 new units “We’re not going to move the needle much in the next few months.”
Why? Because there are currently more than 140 names on the waiting list for micro shelters and the Corvallis Housing First operation at Third Street Commons, formerly the Corvallis Budget Inn.
It also should be noted that at about $15,000 a pop, micro shelters are not cheap.
There are big advantages to this model as well. No new construction and fewer issues with security. But the challenge here is that there just is a lack of availability.
Corvallis Housing First added the Budget Inn to the shelter mix with $2.5 million in state funding, and remodeling the Budget Inn into 40 to 50 units will cost perhaps up to $10 million more.
Using a building to house the homeless also has advantages.
“A building can be financed,” said Bilotta, “Other things cannot be financed, such as staff and renting fences.”
But you can’t finance a building until you find one, which is not an easy thing to do in Corvallis. When the tenure of the men’s shelter at a building on Southwest Fourth Street became problematic because of livability issues, Collins, then with the Housing Opportunities Action Council — a precursor of HOPE — found the old Hanson tire building on Southeast Chapman Place just in time to spruce it up a bit and open for the 2017-18 winter season.
Collins then found a building on Southwest Second Street and plans were announced in May of 2018 to place the men’s shelter, the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center and the Stone Soup meal service in the building.
However, opposition to the co-location concept, which included threats of a lawsuit, led to the abandonment of the plan. The shelter has stayed at the Hanson place, Stone Soup continues to serve at area churches as well as the men’s shelter and the drop-in center has new quarters at the old shelter site on Fourth Street.
None of this came cheap. Rich Carone paid $1.5 million to Devco Engineering for the Hanson property, and Hugh White spent nearly $500,000 to secure the Fourth Street building for the drop-in center.
“There is no perfect site sitting around out there,” Bilotta said, ”and a number of people in this room already know this.”
And that’s why Olson’s cost-estimates chart noted that perhaps $2.5 million would be needed just to secure a building.
Xan Augerot, chair of the Board of Commissioners, summed up the shelter search thusly: "We prefer locally built shelters, no tents in the long-term and a building would be great in the long-term."
The idea of using vacant apartments was raised as well. Olson, however, noted that with Oregon State University returning to in-person instruction for the fall term that the city's vacancy rate has dropped from 5% to 2%. Thus, like hotel rooms, there is no availability.
At its Aug. 19 meeting the group discussed the need for new hires in three categories: project management, grant writing and coordination and communications. On Sept. 2 it was noted that no new hires are being considered.
“This is a challenging time to fill vacancies. It could take weeks and months (to make the hires),” Hoffman said, “and we don’t have that time. And even if we hired a person tomorrow it would take weeks or months for that person to get up to speed.”
“If we were waiting for three FTEs to come on board we could be waiting a very long time,” said Collins.
The Benton County Fairgrounds, which was discussed as a possible shelter site at the Aug. 19 meeting, also came up Sept. 2. County officials repeated that problems with using the fairgrounds for shelter include the number of events held there annually which might have to be displaced, plus the experience the county had with running an RV/car camping facility there during the pandemic.
“We will be collecting information about that experience,” Hoffman said.
Insurance also is likely to be a challenge for any shelter solution. Collins spent $90,000 in federal COVID relief funds late last year setting up the platforms, fencing and other infrastructure for a 24-tent managed camping facility at the men’s shelter, but it sank amid a lack of insurance.
“Insurance is even a bigger issue now,” Collins said. “I’ve been calling all around the state and what we saw in December seems to be getting worse.”
Key issues for the insurance industry, Collins said, include not favoring operations that don’t have a proven track record, how entry to such camps is controlled and the possibility of weapons being introduced.
Laurie Chaplen, the councilor for Ward 6, asked why Samaritan Health Services has not been involved in the shelter discussions, given how important mental health issues and case management will be to the success of any operation.
“We certainly will engage with Samaritan,” said Hoffman, although left hanging was the question of why the hospital group has not been involved previously.
Councilors and officials seemed to leave the Sept. 2 meeting in a much happier mood than at their Aug. 19 session, which included concerns about a lack or urgency and progress on the prolblem.
“I’m feeling much more positive now than I felt at the end of the last meeting,” said councilor Charlyn Ellis of Ward 5.
Bilotta, however, was asked by Ward 4 Councilor Gabe Shepherd what city work is not getting completed because of his focus on homeless issues.
“We’ve been in this mode since November,” Bilotta said. “I’ve stopped doing my real job.”
Bilotta noted work on climate change, the land development code and affordable housing that has been left hanging.
“More than at any other time, we’re not getting those done,” he said. “Everyone is tired. We’ve been going 110 mph ever since the pandemic started.”