Getting a grip on homelessness
Freezing temperatures in the Willamette Valley coupled with overt homelessness and tent camps in its metro areas spurred the city of Woodburn into high gear this month.
After given a nod from Woodburn City Council, the city has embarked on a project in a partnership with the city's most salient humanitarian group, Love Inc., intent on addressing homelessness via a two-pronged approach. Salem's recent debacle in dealing with the issue, and Portland's ongoing ordeal, provided the dint for Woodburn's accelerated attention.
"We are working on an agreement with Love Inc. for the operation of a severe weather shelter or warming center this week," Woodburn City Administrator Scott Derickson said. "I hope to have that agreement in front of the city council during their next meeting. The Chief (Jim Ferraris) is also proposing a no camping in public right-of-way/street ordinance, which we also hope to have presented during the next city council meeting."
The topic received considerable discussion during the Monday, Jan. 13, council meeting, which was attended by Love Inc. Executive Co-Director Curt Jones and homeless advocate Alice Swanson.
The crux of the project involves city staff working with Love Inc. to identify and establish an emergency warming shelter, for which the city would allocate $10,000. Woodburn Police are working concomitantly on a city ordinance that clarifies a prohibition of camping in right-of-way areas.
Ferraris and Derickson both stressed that this binary approach is proactive and preemptive. The presenters didn't have to look far to furnish an illustration of what they intend to avert.
"Woodburn is situated between two large metropolitan areas with I-5 that runs between them; literally 30 minutes in either direction from very large, at-risk homeless populations that other cities are struggling to manage," Derickson explained.
According to federal data, between 2018 and 2019 Oregon reported a 9.7% increase in its homeless count; that amounts to an additional 1,400 unsheltered bringing the statewide total to 15,876.
But local reports dispute that, citing higher numbers. Portland State University's Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative has produced reports estimating the metro-homeless population alone at 38,000; federal statistics cited just over 5,000.
Statistics aside, visual and anecdotal incidents are plentiful.
On Jan. 14 city of Salem announced its plans to declare a homelessness emergency during its Jan. 21 city council meeting. The city enacted camping restrictions on public property in mid-December which appeared to exacerbate the problem. While some areas continue to see winter tents popping up, other areas experienced people without shelter and their possessions mounting, often carted along in shopping carts or other conveyances, lining city streets in areas like the downtown mall.
Salem's Jan. 14 announcement noted that a declaration of an emergency will allow its city council to temporarily suspend certain land use provisions to:
Utilize Pringle Hall as an overnight shelter for up to 37 people;
Increase capacity of the United Way's Safe Sleep Shelter for women;
Allow car camping on private property with the owner's permission.
Salem officials also discussed enhancing warming facilities and other continued efforts to establish suitable space for temporary shelter.
"Salem residents and visitors have reported difficulty passing on public rights of way, sometimes threatening behavior, and unsanitary conditions that include solid waste and garbage accumulation in public areas as a result of the unsheltered groups," the city's emergency declaration noted. "Downtown businesses have stated that the conditions around their properties adversely affect their customers. The City has intervened with periodic cleanings when public health and safety conditions have deteriorated."
That has not escaped the notice of Woodburn residents.
"Salem looks like a train wreck when it comes to this kind of stuff," Woodburn City Councilor Eric Morris said. "So, anything we're crafting, hopefully we can tip it around what their issues are."
Staving it off
Derickson stressed that the concept being developed by Woodburn officials and advocates will be directed toward Woodburn's situation. Morris express concerns about approaches that could either move an unsheltered issue from one area to another, or possibly lure it to the area.
"Our goal is not to create a program that creates problems where no problems existed, but to try to resolve issues in areas that have problems that exist now," Derickson said.
"Our two neighboring communities (Portland and Salem) have billion-dollar budgets combined, and they are currently sweeping people off of their streets because their models have not been successful," he added. "I'm not under any illusion that as a local government we could effectively tackle that."
What the project intends to do is ensure a safe, warm environment for a portion of the unsheltered who need it. It would also have stipulations, such as no drugs or alcohol allowed. Additionally, advocates say the shelter could help them direct those in need toward specific social services that could help boost them into more suitable living conditions.
It can also help prevent squalid conditions on public property.
"One of the police departments primary concerns is what tools do we have to deal with any potential overflow," Ferraris said, referencing not the people who seek the shelter and agree with its conditions, but those who do not, perhaps because of those conditions. "People who don't want to participate, take the helping hand that Curt (Jones) and I alluded to…may be camping on public land, public right of way, public property.
"We have an ordinance in place to deal with parks, so that's not a concern. We can address that effectively with what's on the books," the chief continued. "As this pressure continues to address homelessness, successfully or not, in our neighboring large communities to the north and south, we are going to see people here. And the Police department does not want to be behind the curve. We'd rather be proactive (and) develop an ordinance to address camping….much like the city of Keizer did."
"How do you deal with the concept that what you are doing is enabling some of these folks?" Councilor Robert Carney posed to the warming shelter advocates.
"That is a fair questions," Swanson said. "I believe that is a philosophical issue and that we could be in this room for a very long time. I could try to justify what I'm doing and my perspective."
Swanson indicated that the more crucial issue at hand needs to be addressed first.
"What I will tell you is I will reframe this conversation in the context of emergency warming shelter; mobile emergency warming shelter," Swanson continued. "It's a referral basis, having people come to a spot, lay down their pride (and) share space with 11 or 12 other people just for the sake of being warm that night and staying alive."
After a night's rest in those warm environs, they return to the street – and to the same conditions.
"I can't fix them: I can't justify why they're on the street; I can't get them off the street," Swanson stressed. "What my group wants to do is offer them temporary shelter, so that our city is seen as compassionate in taking care of their own for a specified amount of time."
Morris questioned whether the shelter could be a magnet, luring homeless whose situation engendered elsewhere.
"Part of me feels like we are trying to solve a problem that hasn't really been a problem (in Woodburn)," Morris said, noting heretofore he has not seen the issue come before the city council. "It hasn't been an issue, so the question I will ask you when this comes before the council again is 'what happens if we don't pass it?'"
Morris asked whether there data available on the overall homeless issue, especially how its affected in Woodburn.
"I'm fearful, like Councilor Carney, that if we build it, they will come."
Ferraris said he's seen homeless issues and conditions develop firsthand, largely through 42 years serving in law enforcement in Oregon, including 30 years in Portland and five in Salem.
"Focusing on homeless issues has been a large part of my career focus, because there are so many public safety issues intertwined," Ferraris said. "I have a different perspective (than) if we build it, they will come…If we don't build it, they will be here and we won't be able to deal with it.
"That's what's happened in Portland, and that's what's happened in Salem -- it wasn't dealt with."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.