Is car camping in Newberg a problem without a solution?
If ever there was a cheery euphemism for homeless folks sheltering in their vehicles, it's "car camping."
This unfortunate phenomenon is not recreationally based but borne out of necessity as most of these individuals simply have no other options.
The topic is of great interest in Newberg of late, with rumors and outright misinformation flooding social media sites and leading to a potential ballot initiative that would limit the city's ability to address the homelessness problem altogether.
There's no doubting that Newberg is among the towns where people are sheltering in vehicles, often illegally, on public and private property. There's also no questioning that instances of car camping are increasing, much to the chagrin of property owners, residents and others.
In response, a number of faith-based organizations approached the city in hopes of expanding their ability to host car campers on their land. The request prompted city government, which had included car camping on private property as an option in its five-year housing plan, to commission a study by a group of Portland State University students majoring in urban and regional planning.
The group, called Camellia Planning, was charged with studying the issue and reporting back to the city. After a six-month effort, the group presented at a June 21 joint work session of the City Council and planning commission. The city bore no costs for the study.
The PSU group identified three goals: determining the need for the service in town; gauging how other cities have addressed car camping and surveying potential implementation options. The group conducted what they termed as two firsthand and 14 secondhand "lived experience interviews" to gather data.
The common circumstances they uncovered showed that some households are car camping while they seek long-term housing; others are electing to car camp rather than use other shelter or housing options. Some, however, occasionally car camp when other options are not available.
The interviews included one with an unidentified individual they dubbed "Jane," who shared her experience with car camping.
Jane, a Newberg native, is a single parent with multiple children who works in the city. Her wages barely pay the rent each month and due to an unforeseen medical emergency she falls behind on rent payments and is evicted from their apartment.
As housing prices have skyrocketed in Newberg over the past decade, Jane can't find an apartment that can accommodate her family and is affordable. She also has difficulty meeting the rental history requirements and raising the necessary security deposits and first and last month's rent.
The family accessed shelters in Newberg, but report that they "felt unwelcome" at the options available. One shelter could not accommodate the family's pet and at another her family was unable to abide by the shelter's strict schedule and rules.
"After a few short stays she decides her family would be best off sleeping in their vehicle as she waits on an affordable housing waitlist," the PSU report says.
Jane's children are attending Newberg schools and after-school programs. Being a good mom, the study found, Jane makes sure the kids have access to toilets, bathing facilities, food, laundry and a place to dispose of garbage.
Every evening she attempts to find a spot to park their vehicle and safely sleep for the night. When they do find a spot, they are often harassed by neighbors and have had negative interactions with police, who have no place to suggest where she can safely park for the evening.
She's picking up as many shifts at work as possible, while caring for their vehicle as it is a home and mode of transportation for the time being. Gas and other costs are taking up half of the family's budget. The other half goes to food and basic necessities. Without access to kitchen facilities the family's primary diet is fast food or from food banks and soup kitchens they access in the city.
The stress and work of caring for her family puts undue stress on Jane, which limits her availability for work.
The family lives in their vehicle off and on for 24 months, 18 of which she is on a waitlist for subsidized housing in Newberg. The family eventually receives the housing, but the negative memories of the past two years remain.
What can churches do?
Jane recounted with relief the times when her family was allowed to park for multiple consecutive days at a single location. However, without any kind of city car camping program, the arrangements were always semi-permanent. With those types of resources in the community, Jane said she believes she would have been able to focus her time and energy on facing the family's challenges every day.
"Jane recounted that her family would have greatly benefited from a place where they could consistently park their vehicle as well as have access to waste disposal areas and bathrooms for the family," the family said.
Enter Newberg churches.
What they are looking at is, with the blessing of the city, creating sites where safe parking overnight parking is allowed, decriminalizing vehicle sheltering and providing hygiene facilities and other services.
These would be places where people could go without suffering costly citations or possible impoundment of their vehicle, while being safe and where case management would sometimes be offered. It would be a stopgap measure until Newberg gets its housing situation fixed and can facilitate providing resources for people who have been most impacted by the housing crisis.
What are the options?
The PSU group produced three options for car camping in Newberg: host oversight, city oversight and service provider oversight. The difference is the level of oversight by the city and what it takes to begin and oversee a program. Funding is also a question.
The third option includes the city hiring a service provider, providing some level of funding and having some oversight as well. The PSU study said this is probably the best solution for providing long-term service to the homeless and would be more effective. This idea was the favorite of the stakeholders and focus groups as well.
The PSU study also determined that the city should adopt a design and administrative plan to determine whether a car camping program should be implemented and, if so, how and who would be involved. It also suggested total engagement by all quarters of the community, from neighbors, churches and nonprofits to law enforcement and those with "lived experience."
The study included 14 secondhand accounts on car camping and found that most of them would benefit from a program formed by the city in conjunction with local churches.
Housing shortage root of issue
Newberg's lack of affordable housing has reached critical levels and is at the forefront of city planners' thoughts these days. The PSU study determined that the number of households spending more than 30% of their income on housing-related expenses topped half the population and that the city needs to construct 229 additional units to address the population in the city that is unsheltered.
"These kinds of challenges deteriorate residential stability and increase the risk of houselessness for Newberg's residents," the study found.
What are other towns doing?
The PSU group looked at 14 programs in Oregon and Washington, their policies and interviewed planners and service providers to see what is required for a successful program. They identified "varied approaches to implementing and operating a car camping program to shape recommendations," the study said.
The group spent a fair amount of time looking at the nuts and bolts of a program, including how many vehicles could inhabit a spot, providing sanitary facilities, etc. They also looked at the cities' codes and references to vehicle parking and dwellings, as well as allowing religious institutions to host car campers.
Oregon set a precedent several years ago by revising statutes that allowed religious institutions to host up to three vehicles in their parking lots and required bathrooms, laundry facilities and garbage disposal. The statute was subsequently amended to remove the three-vehicle limit and now allows any private or public entity to host a car camping program. The state also updated its definition of transitional housing to include parking lots and vehicles.
The study looked at Bend Safe Parking, housed at one of its churches. Bend statutes allow churches, nonprofits, public entities or businesses to host three vehicles without permission, but they need to supply hygiene facilities.
The city also allows up to six tents or vehicles at the same venues, but that requires an application process to the city beforehand. The city also can allow public entities to host more than six vehicles via an application process. That scenario requires the entity to provide case management and other services not required at the smaller sites.
McMinnville implemented a car camping program through an ordinance several years ago, first coming up with definitions of what constitutes a camp, family, motor vehicle and where all this is allowed.
The Encompass program in McMinnville has intake interviews of people seeking to access the service before they are allowing them into the program. That allows them to identify who is seeking to use the program and where best to put them among multiple site options in town.
Work session illuminating
Discussion of the issue at the June 21 work session raised many questions.
Councilor Mike McBride asked if the PSU report determined "a difference between those who are actually needing a place a place to stay, compared to those who are living in their car by choice and just wanting to skip through life, so to speak, or is there also a difference between or an increase of people with mental health issues that were wanting to be a part of that program?"
"So, we struggled to quantify who the potential user base in Newberg might be," one PSU student responded. "So, what we included is all the accounts that we heard, but it is not an attempt to quantify who might be using a program."
Planning commissioner Sharon Capri asked about the application process for earning a spot in these places.
"I love all of those reasons for doing this. What I don't love, I have property and it was taken over by car campers. But they're not just car campers, they're people who have RVs or they have trailers, or they have campers, and they get these and they leave them and I spent about $10,000 last year just picking up their trash. So, then that leads me into saying from an insurance standpoint I know the county considers it the property owners' responsibility for these people when they come on their land. So, I don't know how you decide and how do you keep the other ones off because … I heard a question about drugs. The guys that were out at my property, most of them through the (homeless) outreach people … were on drugs — heroin. "So, it's a huge moral issue. I would love to help families in need who have children that need to go to school."
Mayor Rick Rogers attempted to contextualize the homeless issue by calling for a show of hands of people on the council and planning commission that have either been homeless or know somebody who has been homeless at one time. About half of the participants raised their hand.
"So, this isn't just a problem in Portland, right …?" he said. "People are car camping now in Newberg. These people are deeply connected with our community — they grew up here, work here or they have children in the school district. Many of us actually know them and know their names, and you may too. They grew up here, whether it's Earleen or Michael or Lisa or Kenny, they grew up here, so this isn't an imported problem either."
Rogers explained that the effort to adopt a car camping program did not emanate from within city government.
"This request and why this came to us was brought by faith-based organizations who see the need," he said, adding that housing costs are four times higher now in Newberg than they were in 2000.
He also sought to dispel some of the rumors and misinformation plaguing the discussion.
"The other thing that has been a fallacy I think out there in the internet world is that this is a blanket approval for car camping throughout the city," Rogers said. "I think as you clearly saw, this is not. This is a request from a service provider to provide it. … There were churches that were doing this without being registered."
If the council decides to address the issue, he said, "we would like to have some kind of regulation if the council moves forward on this. My personal opinion is that there absolutely needs to be on-site, wraparound services continually to get people off the street, out of their cars and into something more permanent."
He concluded in reminding people that so far the city has just received the PSU report. If it were moved to take any action it would first have to go through the planning commission and there would be ample opportunity for public input.
Councilors Stephanie Findley and Elise Yarnell Hollamon concurred with Rogers' assessment.
"It is incumbent on the community, if it is what it claims to be, to address these problems thoughtfully and with compassion rather than just complain about the problem without offering solutions," Findley said.
Hollamon explained that many people come into discussions about homelessness with understanding that there are faith-based organizations and health care organizations that have been doing this for five years in Newberg.
"My hope is for a thoughtful process that we can work through together so that we don't have scenarios that get out of hand but do honor the citizens in Newberg who have grown up here and are struggling and … It's our responsibility to support them," she said.
Residents who spoke at the June 21 council meeting were united in their distaste for expanding car camping opportunities in Newberg.
Bill Rosacker took particular aim at the PSU report, saying the group should have been named "Rosy Planning" because their report "is the most rosy description of car camping that a person could possibly give."
He also decried what he characterized as a lack of opportunity for community input.
"Oh, the other problem, no citizen involvement in this entire process," he said as his voice rose. "It's the second time I've spoke at public meetings … I get five minutes to come up here and do this and then I go sit down and you guys carry on business without my input or anybody else's input. There is not going to be sufficient input on this issue. The city intends to cram this down our throat and I promise I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that it doesn't happen."
To that end, Rosacker and two other residents have mounted a petition drive to place an initiative on a future ballot that would ban the city from providing funds for homeless programs without first gaining approval of the votes. The initiative alsowould ban construction of homeless housing facilities within 1,500 feet of a school.
Longtime Newberg resident Lee Eubanks said car camping is already "tolerated" in Newberg and "I see no reason to expand it."
"The problem I have with it is that over the last year I've dealt with just untold amounts of people trying to camp on my street, doing drugs on my street, filling up two vacant houses near me," he said. "I had the police on speed dial — the chief probably doesn't want to talk to me, but a lot of those calls for service were mine."
The effects of car campers on his neighborhood have galvanized his distaste for it.
"I have garbage thrown in the street, needles thrown in the street," he said. "You go out and confront them about it and you're some kind of an idiot — they have every right to be there. That kind of attitude just isn't necessary."
Eubanks insisted that homeless people are migrating to Newberg from outside the community to access services, which is displacing local residents in need of help.
Rob Molzahn related a story about discovering an individual car camping behind his realty firm.
"I came into the lot early one morning and found the car loaded clear to the hilt with just stuff and someone sleeping in the driver's seat …," he said. "I went and knocked on the window and asked them to move. They grumbled a bit and then turned away. I said I would call the police and within 10 minutes they pulled out of the lot."
He highlighted the safety aspect of the issue.
"I think whether it's in a residential area (or) the parking lot of a business, it's scary to know what they're there for. It's scary to confront them and ask them to move on because they become belligerent and unfriendly," Molzahn said.
He urged the council to research the issue thoroughly before considering any action.
"I strongly urge you to explore this topic before deciding on it," Molzahn said. "I recognize that allowing car camping without controls can get out of control. It's not good for the community, it's not good for commerce. We can be compassionate and serve in other ways. … To me it's foolish and opens the door to getting out of control.
Tim Bruner, who moved his family to Newberg a year ago in part due to bad experiences with car campers and the homeless in east Portland, advised the council to tread lightly.
"If this City Council considers this, you're setting up the community for failure," he said. "Regulation will be expensive and difficult, costs will continue to grow year after year, and livability for the community will get worse and worse. Once this City Council opens this door, it will spiral out of control and is almost impossible to retract."
Rogers reiterated that the PSU study the council accepted is advisory and doesn't require the city to take any action on car camping.
"While some in the blogosphere wanted to paint the action as something more, all we have been presented to date is a study," he said. "No action has been taken. The intent was to look at the issue and provide possible options."
That being said, he added that the city will be faced with addressing homelessness substantively at some point.
"The ideal fix would be that there would never be a need for someone to shelter in a vehicle in Newberg or anywhere in this county or state," Roger said. "Unfortunately, that is not where we are. People are living in their cars in Newberg. In my opinion, we need to do all we can to direct residents to services and the possibility of permanent housing."
"I've said it before and I'll say it again — houselessness is one of the most complex and vexing problems that we face as a city, county, state and nation. I strongly believe in the compassionate enforcement approach and hope others will see the value. In all of this, I feel we must do all we can to direct folks on the street or in their cars to the services available through our local shelters, YCAP, Providence and all of the other providers in the region. Unfortunately, we cannot, in my mind, legislate (or petition) the problem away."
The PSU group suggested the city first begin by determining the true number of people who are car camping. The study found that number at between nine and 20 households in the city. Beyond that, the study recommended that the city work with the churches to expand car camping on their properties, then collect data on who and how many people are using the services.
Ultimately, the PSU group said, the city gets to determine the guidelines for the program and help those people who require assistance from a service provider contracting with the city.
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