Homelessness forum draws concerned crowd
Brian Schimmel now helps homeless people in western Washington County as the community outreach director of Old Town Forest Grove Church, which is part of a local shelter network.
But Schimmel isn't new to the problem of homelessness.
As a child, he encountered homeless people on his family's 250-acre dairy farm outside Rainier.
"We discovered frequent squatters in campers, tents, vehicles ... often on the outer edge of the property, largely left alone," Schimmel said at a Homelessness Forum Wednesday night, Nov. 15. "And looking back at my living conditions growing up, it was what we call poverty today — government assistance, food insecurity and even a condemned house."
Schimmel was one of four panelists who spoke to more than 70 people gathered at the Forest Hills Golf Club south of Cornelius. The forum on homelessness was hosted by two of the county's Citizen Participation Organizations: 15 and 10, with support from CPOs 12c and 13.
Speakers and attendees shared a variety of views, with some describing personal connections to the issue.
"Yesterday I learned I had a co-worker who's homeless," said one woman, still emanating her surprise.
David Pero, homeless liaison for the Forest Grove School District, said he's worked with 60 homeless students so far this year and expects that number to double by the end of the year.
"We have at least two big families living in cars," Pero said, noting that a problem for homeless families in western Washington County is that so many of the services that can help them are in the eastern part of the county.
Marcus Speros, general manager of Forest Hills Golf, described cases where property owners have opened up their hearts and agreed to let homeless people stay on their property for a while, "and then they won't leave when you want them to."
Two sites open up
That can be a sticky issue, said panelist Sgt. Bob Ray with the Washington County Sheriff's Office. It's possible for a well-meaning landowner to make an oral or written agreement with a homeless person without realizing it qualifies as a "rental agreement" under the Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) Chapter 90, he said.
In that case, "transfer of possession takes place as soon as the would-be landlord tells the would-be tenant that it's OK to stay there and/or occupy," states an information flyer distributed at the forum.
For example, a motor home in a driveway for two weeks could give its occupants residency rights, Ray said.
If trouble later arises, the landowner should "probably contact an attorney who can help them sort through their particular situation," the flyer states.
Chas Hundley, Gales Creek resident and coordinator of CPO 13 (and editor of the Gales Creek Journal), said he scouted out six to 10 possible rental sites in his area during a recent period when he was in between jobs and facing the possibility of homelessness.
"I knocked on the doors of everyone that seemed to have extra structures on their property," he said. None would rent to him at the time but Hundley (who has since found his own place to live) said two have since started doing so, including the Gales Creek Community Church.
Annette Evans, homeless program coordinator for the county's Department of Housing Services, notes there are all kinds of homeless people, including children, veterans, people with disabilities and seniors.
The economy may be rebounding but it's doing so with mostly low-wage positions, Evans said, which doesn't help people who can't afford the high rents in the Portland area.
An increasing number of seniors, too, are living in their vehicles or getting "dropped off at our office in a cab," she said. Many lost their pensions during the Great Recession. Others have watched their rental costs rise while their social security income stays the same — until they can no longer pay their rent.
Other ways to help
For those people who want to help but don't have spaces to rent out, there are plenty of other ways to help houseless families in our area.
There are the Temporary Emergency Shelters, for example, that will be open from Monday, Nov. 20 through March 30 and are always looking for volunteers.
This shelter network operates at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ, 2032 College Way, on Mondays and Tuesdays, and at Sonrise Church, 2835 19th Ave., Wednesdays and Thursdays. Each location holds from 15 to 22 adults, as well as two to three families.
This year, Schimmel said, shelter staff will go beyond simply providing food and shelter. They'll try to collect information from their guests to try to better understand how they became homeless (see sidebar) and will also try to connect them with services and programs that could help them move out of homelessness.
On a much simpler scale, people can hand out little green cards with the phone number of "Community Connect," part of Washington County's housing services department, which helps find housing for people who are homeless or at risk of it. (Community Connect cards are available on the front desk counter of the News-Times office.)
Schimmel said he's well aware some people think the city's shelters enable homelessness or harm Forest Grove by drawing more homeless people to town. His heart goes out to those who have had bad experiences with homeless people, he said.
But the churches see it as part of their calling to help people who are suffering in any way.
Like survivors of personal or natural disasters, Schimmel said, houseless people have experienced trauma.
And like firefighters or police officers, "we consider ourselves 'first responders' to poverty's impact on our community."