The residents call it Safe Camp because — for the moment, at least — they’re safe from being evicted from their homes.
How long that remains true is a matter of passionate debate.
The camp — a collection of tents, tarps and jury-rigged shelters housing fewer than two dozen homeless people on property owned by the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 4515 SW West Hills Road in Corvallis — sprang up virtually overnight on July 15.
According to the Rev. Jennifer Butler, First Congregational has a long history of providing aid to homeless people camping on the 118-acre tree farm adjoining the church, occasionally setting up trash bins and Porta Potties in the church parking lot for their use.
More recently the church has been allowing homeless campers to get water from a hose and recharge their cellphones or other electronic devices from a power strip on the building’s porch.
In the meantime, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office has continued to respond to requests from tree farm owner David Lin to patrol his property and order the campers off his land. Because they don’t have permission to be there, they can be cited for trespassing. In some cases, the homeless campers also have outstanding arrest warrants, and in one recent incident a man with a gun was arrested at the tree farm for trespassing, being a felon in possession of a firearm and other offenses.
For sheriff’s deputies trying to enforce the law, the situation would sometimes become complicated when someone they suspected of camping illegally on the tree farm was located at the church.
Last month, after deputies issued a trespass notice to someone on First Congregational property, Butler told the Sheriff’s Office that everyone was welcome at the church. At the agency’s request, the church put up strips of orange surveyor’s tape to mark the boundary between its property and the tree farm, which isn’t fenced.
“That was July 13th,” Butler said, “and by July 15th we had 23 persons on our property with tents.”
Neighbors push back
Safe Camp occupies a narrow, 1.35-acre strip of land that First Congregational bought from Lin about 10 years ago. The tents, tucked in among the fir trees and screened by tarps to provide a modicum of privacy, are barely visible from West Hills Road.
But that hasn’t stopped residents of the quiet neighborhood just south of West Hills from sounding the alarm at having a church-sanctioned homeless camp on their doorstep.
During a meeting at First Congregational on July 25, a number of people told church leaders they were worried about fire, theft and other issues. Some neighbors circulated a letter calling the camp “unacceptable” and warning that homeless camps “promote violence including domestic violence, sexual offenses especially against children, and property theft crimes” and that having one nearby would “substantially lower property values.”
On Thursday night, at a meeting of the West Hills Neighborhood Association, a handful of people expressed cautious support for what the church is doing, but a much larger number expressed their fears, with one woman asking Butler for assurances that none of the campers were convicted murderers, rapists or pedophiles.
Some of the neighbors, led by attorney Dan Armstrong, are exploring the possibility of a lawsuit to get the camp shut down.
“It doesn’t belong there,” Armstrong told the newspaper. “It’s unsettling to have that number of people over there, and you know most of them have criminal warrants.”
While he understands homelessness is a societal issue that needs to be addressed, Armstrong said, the camp is far too close for comfort. He and his fellow homeowners feel the church is disregarding their safety and dismissing their valid concerns.
“People have lived in this neighborhood for many years under the impression that it was a safe, peaceful neighborhood, and they shouldn’t have to now start locking their doors and battening down the hatches,” Armstrong said.
“I’m as compassionate as the next guy, but don’t put it in my neighborhood.”
A sense of obligation
Butler said the church did not set out to create a homeless camp on its property, but now that it’s there, the congregation feels an obligation to care for the people who turned to them for shelter.
“We were just reacting with conscience,” she told the newspaper. “When Jesus said, ‘Take care of the poor and the sick and those without shelter,’ that is a commandment that we are going to take up.”
It remains to be seen how long Safe Camp will survive.
While Butler insists that the church has no plans to make the arrangement permanent, she also thinks it could serve as a pilot project to test a legal camping model as one way to address the growing problem of homelessness in Corvallis.
Doing so, she added, would require the assistance of partners who have expertise in working with unhoused populations.
“I wouldn’t call this quasi (permanent) or permanent,” Butler said. “We really see this as a temporary thing, and a transition to something.”
In the meantime, church members have been looking to other organizations for models of how to manage a legal homeless camp, such as Eugene’s Opportunity Village.
One of the first steps First Congregational took was to require campers to abide by a code of conduct. Conditions include:
• No criminal activity.
• No weapons.
You have free articles remaining.
• No drugs.
• No open fires.
• No stoves except in a designated area of the parking lot.
• No stealing.
• No violence.
• No horseplay.
• Respect the land.
• Keep the noise down.
• Residents only from dusk to dawn.
• Mandatory attendance at weekly meetings.
A chance for stability
Although Safe Camp started out with 23 residents, that number quickly dropped to 21 when two people decided to leave rather than sign a contract to obey the code of conduct. Five more residents have since moved out after social workers were able to connect them with transitional housing in the community, leaving the camp with 16 residents.
For those who remain, Safe Camp represents a rare opportunity for stability — and perhaps a chance at a better life.
Debra Clinton, 58, said she’s lived in Corvallis off and on since 1979 and has been homeless for all but 16 months of the last 10 years. She said she had some trouble with her housing voucher from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and after two no-cause evictions she couldn’t get anyone to rent to her.
“Through camping here I got a line on a house,” Clinton said. “(Community Outreach) will put me in a house until my HUD voucher comes in.”
She hopes that happens soon.
“Unless you’ve lived in Oregon one winter in a tent,” she said, “you don’t know what you’re talking about — ‘cause it gets bad.”
Robin Ford, 47, said he’s lived all over but is an Oregonian by birth. He’s been homeless “this time” for a year and nine months and started camping on the tree farm about three months ago.
Although he makes a decent income returning bottles and cans for the deposit, he’d like to get a regular job and move into permanent housing. First, though, he needs to obtain a copy of his birth certificate so he can get a state ID card.
Safe Camp, he said, gives him and other homeless campers enough breathing room to take a shot at getting themselves off the streets.
“It’s a chance for people to get settled in and not have to worry about where their next place is going to be, not have to worry about the cops coming in (and evicting them) — that’s a lot of stress on a person,” Ford said.
Jerry Brown, 51, said he became homeless in 2013 when his girlfriend broke up with him and he had to move out of the house they shared. The cheapest rental he could find was $1,100 a month, and he couldn’t come up with the first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. He lived in his vehicle for awhile but eventually found himself on the streets.
Brown said he started camping on the tree farm in April, after the men’s cold weather shelter closed down for the season.
He described conditions at Safe Camp as “organized chaos” but said he and the other residents are working with church members to make things better. Over time, he hopes, the neighbors will lose some of their suspicions about the camp and its residents.
“Give us a little more time to get set up, and maybe they can walk through sometime, sit down and have a cup of coffee,” he said.
A potential solution
At the neighborhood association meeting on Thursday night, Butler said the church has decided that 21 people should be the maximum capacity for Safe Camp but has not yet decided whether to fill the five spots vacated so far – even though there have been numerous requests from people wanting to move in.
“Because it’s a safe space,” she said. “It’s the only safe camping spot in Corvallis that’s also legal in Corvallis.”
In the meantime, she said, the church is continuing to explore ways to make the camp run safely and with as little disruption to the neighborhood as possible, including possibly hiring a manager.
And she expressed the hope that the Safe Camp experiment, however long it lasts, might point the way toward a partial solution to homelessness.
“If we try to do something like this anywhere, it’s not going to be perfect — people are going to be upset,” she said.
“But if we don’t have the moral imagination to do something, somewhere, this problem is going to continue.”
Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-812-6111 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.