The Benton County Board of Commissioners got an earful on Tuesday from people unhappy with the board’s decision to withhold county funding from a seasonal men’s homeless shelter planned for downtown Corvallis.
The Housing Opportunities Action Council, which is co-chaired by Benton County Commissioner Anne Schuster, asked the board for $60,000 in May to support the shelter this winter, as it has in the past. The commissioners made no decision at that time, instead directing staff to find sources in the county budget where the money might come from.
But the shelter’s proposed location for this winter, 545 SW Second St., has sparked a backlash from the downtown business community, and the commissioners decided not to provide funding for the shelter at that site.
The decision — which was made last Thursday at a sparsely attended special meeting with area city managers rather than at a regular meeting of the board (click here to see related story) — took many people by surprise when it was reported by the Gazette-Times in Monday’s online edition and Tuesday’s print edition.
“I was distressed this morning to read in the newspaper that the county has voted to withdraw funding for the homeless shelter on Second Street,” said Bruce Weber. “I would ask the county recommit to working with HOAC on creating supportive infrastructure for the homeless.”
Weber sits on the board of Stone Soup, a free meal program that was planning to co-locate with the men’s cold weather shelter and the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center at the Second Street location. He was one of four people who spoke on the subject during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting. All four condemned the decision and asked the board to reconsider.
“There seems to be a real lack of humanity in this discussion,” said Vijay Raghavan, who volunteered at the shelter last winter. “I’d love to see more leadership and more priority placed on people.”
Sue Schulz, another Stone Soup board member, reminded the board that “the clock is ticking” on the need to secure a new location for the men’s shelter, which normally operates from November through March. Last year the facility was housed in a former tire store on Southeast Chapman Place, but that space is no longer available.
Schulz complained that the public did not have an opportunity to weigh in on the commissioners’ decision, noting that funding for the shelter was not on the published agenda for last Thursday’s special meeting.
“The truth is, nobody wants to be the shelter’s neighbor. Well, where does that leave us?” she asked.
“We have a place and we have a plan. Please reconsider your financial support of the men’s cold-weather shelter in the Second Street location.”
“This looks and feels like the county saying, ‘We don’t care about the homeless in our community,’” said the Rev. Matt Gordon of First Christian Church, which has hosted the Stone Soup and drop-in center programs for years.
Gordon acknowledged “there is no perfect location” for a homeless shelter but said livability issues could be addressed by a cooperative approach involving city and county officials and nonprofit organizations that serve the homeless.
“No matter where it’s located, it’s going to take a collaborative approach,” Gordon said.
Schuster, who has been meeting with business leaders and others in hopes of finding an alternative site for the shelter, said the Second Street location has too many negatives.
“We tried to be collaborative and come up with a common solution … (but) we could not find a site that would work,” she said.
“We are looking at some other sites,” she added. “I just hope the nonprofits aren’t so upset that they won’t consider other alternatives.”
Schuster cited the potential impacts of a homeless shelter on downtown businesses and on the new museum being built two blocks away by the Benton County Historical Society.
“For schoolkids and families coming to that site, I’m really worried,” she said. “It should be a welcoming, friendly area, not a place where people are uncomfortable. I know many of you say there’s no reason to fear and people shouldn’t be uncomfortable, but people are, and I think we need to worry about that.”
(Mike Schweizer, president of the Benton County Historical Museum’s board of trustees, called the Gazette-Times to dispute Schuster’s statement, saying it does not represent the board’s point of view. “The museum has never, ever stated a policy about that,” he said. “Plus, many of us are not necessarily afraid of having a shelter downtown.” He said the board planned to discuss the issue at its meeting on Thursday.)
Commissioner Annabelle Jaramillo called it a difficult decision but said “the stars are not aligned for getting this particular location.”
Commission Chair Xan Augerot cited pressure to act in advance of the “artificial” July 1 deadline set by Stone Soup and the drop-in center for moving into their new location and said it made sense to “call timeout” to discuss matters further.
“We do need to have a broader conversation, and, if nothing else, I think we’ve gotten the community’s attention,” she said.
“I am sorry that we came off sounding heartless. That was not our intention.”
Besides county financial support, the shelter's main funding source historically has been the city of Corvallis, which also provided $60,000 last year. The city has set aside the same amount in its budget for the coming fiscal year but has not yet allocated the funds.