In the face of furious opposition, the backers of a plan to locate a seasonal shelter for homeless men in the Community Services Consortium building at 545 SW Second St. have agreed to move it to an alternate site: the former Hanson Tire Factory building at 211 SE Chapman Place.
Late Thursday afternoon, businessman Rich Carone and the Rev. Jill McAllister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, the fiscal agent for the shelter, announced a deal to open the shelter on Nov. 1 in the former tire store just south of downtown.
“The agreement to relocate the shelter was reached in discussions among the owner of the CSC building and the other planned tenants at the site,” the announcement stated. “It was agreed that it was in the best interest of the clients to change course.”
It’s the latest dramatic twist in a story that has galvanized public opinion in Corvallis for months.
The shelter operated at the Hanson site last winter, but the building’s owner had plans to redevelop the property and had said it would not be available this season.
In May came an announcement that an agreement had been reached on a long-term lease for the shelter at 545 SW Second. Two other nonprofits that cater to the local homeless population, the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center and the Stone Soup meal service, also planned to sign long-term leases at the same location.
Advocates for the homeless hailed the idea of co-locating the services at the Second Street site. But a number of downtown property owners and business leaders objected, saying the shelter would draw more homeless people to the area and serve as a breeding ground for crime. Some threatened legal action to block the shelter’s opening.
The issue prompted sharp criticism of the Housing Opportunities Action Council, the umbrella group that oversees the joint Corvallis-Benton County plan to address homelessness, over its handling of the site search and the actions of project manager and chief spokesman Shawn Collins.
It also drove a wedge between HOAC’s co-chairs: Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber, who supported the downtown location, and Benton County Commissioner Anne Schuster, who opposed it.
One of the most vocal opponents was Carone, who owns property on the same block as the proposed downtown shelter site. As an alternative, he floated a plan to spend $4 million raised from private investors to develop a shelter, transitional housing and other facilities for the homeless off Northeast Walnut Boulevard.
When that proposal drew the ire of nearby residents, he changed tacks, announcing in July that he had secured an option to purchase the Hanson Tire Factory building. He also said he had worked out a plan to enhance security for the neighboring First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op, which had endured shoplifting and other problems during the shelter’s tenure last winter.
In the meantime, however, with time running short before the cold-weather shelter’s traditional Nov. 1 opening date, local elected officials were wrestling with decisions about whether to provide financial support for the facility.
The Benton County Board of Commissioners initially decided to withhold $60,000 in funding for shelter operations this year, then reversed that decision and awarded the money. A sharply divided Corvallis City Council, after a heated debate, voted to allocate the same amount and tie it to the Second Street site.
The deal announced Thursday is contingent on the council’s willingness to transfer that funding to the Hanson location.
It would appear to be a win for Concerned Citizens for Corvallis Downtown Safety and Livability, an ad hoc group of downtown property and business owners who had hired an attorney and threatened to seek a court injunction to block the Second Street shelter, although they’re not declaring victory just yet.
“Obviously, we want to make sure this is actually happening first,” said Terri Homer, a spokeswoman for the group who had argued publicly for the Hanson Tire Factory site.
“But if in fact the City Council can agree on it, then there’s no need for us to pursue any further legal action.”
At the same time, the agreement represents a setback for some of the nonprofit social service organizations that serve the homeless: While the Hanson Tire Factory building is big enough for a 40-bed men’s shelter, it’s too small to accommodate any other services.
According to Thursday’s announcement, Stone Soup will continue to provide meals in two local churches while hoping for a more permanent location. The drop-in center, which moved out of its longtime home in the basement of the First Christian Church in July, is currently operating in the Second Street site under a temporary conditional use permit from the city. It will have to scramble to find a new home.
After all the effort that had gone into securing the Second Street location and preparing to operate the men’s shelter, drop-in center and soup kitchen there under one roof, it wasn’t easy to abandon those plans, Collins said. But given the uncertainty and potential delays created by the threat of legal action, agreeing to the Hanson Tire Factory site seemed like the only prudent thing to do.
“It was a good plan we went in there with. I think it would have delivered a lot of benefits to the community and to our clients,” Collins said. “But in the end the risk to our clients was greater than if we changed course.”
And there are some signs that the controversy over a downtown shelter may produce some long-term benefits in the effort to help the local homeless population.
City and county officials are nearing an agreement on hiring a professional facilitator to work with stakeholder groups and the public on a wide range of issues, starting with ways to mitigate problems arising from the men’s shelter.
“My hope is that by early next week we will have something worked out,” County Administrator Joe Kerby said Thursday. “We’re trying to make it as inclusive as possible and build bridges along the way.”
Carone could not be reached for an interview Thursday evening, but the statement announcing the Hanson Tire Factory agreement included a comment from him.
“This move is an investment in the future of services for some of the most vulnerable in our community, but it is only a first step,” he is quoted as saying. “We want to create an atmosphere of collaboration and trust with all stakeholders and develop long-term, sustainable solutions for homelessness in Benton County.”
Collins, for one, said he is willing to take Carone at his word.
“He was very serious about getting (the shelter) off Second Street — he made that very clear,” Collins said. “But I think he’s also very serious about investing in long-term solutions.”