A group of concerned citizens filled the Chetco Community Public Library in Brookings Monday to continue discussions about the homeless and how to help integrate them back into society.
The faces of homelessness are numerous: individuals, families, and unrelated groups who hang around together for companionship and safety. There are teenagers who couch surf and veterans who find shelter in the woods. Some seek refuge at the Outreach Gospel Mission in Harbor, others in tents at state parks and the backyards of friends.
They all have their own stories, said County Commissioner Susan Brown, who is heading up the coalition to address the problem of those who panhandle for food, alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
Challenges facing the homeless include housing - both affordability and availability - mental health support, literacy, work opportunities and drug and alcohol addiction.
One by one
Smaller factions of Brown's new group plan to address the various issues.
A housing committee plans to research availability and restrictions, transitional housing and shelters - and the costs of obtaining or maintaining each type of shelter.
"Housing programs such as public housing and Section 8 require a criminal background check, and landlords accepting Section 8 vouchers may have more restrictions," Brown said. "There is also a shortage of transitional housing and shelters in the area."
Literacy is another challenge, for both those who speak another language or those who simply cannot read.
"It's an impediment to many who do not understand or are unable to read and fill out applications to access resources that may be available to them," Brown said. "It also affects the ability to apply for work and maintain employment."
Mental illness is a major problem, and there are little to no services to help those in need in Curry County.
"It's staggering," Brown said. "Nationwide, about 60 percent of people who are chronically homeless have mental health conditions. Curry County has limited resources to assist mental illness, and even fewer resources to help the homeless with mental illness."
The group would like to see reinstated Pacific Crossroads, a drop-in center that served the homeless, mentally ill, addicted, seniors and disabled in the county. It was funded by a grant from Jefferson Behavioral Health through Curry County Human Services, but when the grant money expired, the center was forced to limit its outreach services as it downsized, Brown said.
This new group plans to research funding for a new location to provide a safe place where individuals can foster independence, friendships, and to offer resources, information and advocacy for a better future.
Other issues the group plans to tackle are trash and panhandling, the most visible and complained-about problems in connection with the homeless in Curry County.
"Unsightly trash left behind to be cleaned up by someone else is unacceptable," Brown said. "There are many volunteers who clean up after transients, and are looking for a better solution. Brookings has a healthy tourism industry and there is concern about visitors being offended by trash left by transients and panhandlers on the street."
The group agreed there should be options for those "flying their signs" seeking food or clothing.
"The cash isn't being used for basic needs," Brown said, adding that the group is working to get local merchants to participate in a coupon- or voucher-based system.
"Certificates could be purchased from local stores and redeemed for food, clothing or personal items," Brown said. "The idea is not to discourage giving, but rather to get people to give responsibly."
An incentive program discussed could include the opportunity for work in the community in exchange for goods, or a day-labor program, she said, with a central resource center acting as the clearinghouse for resources.
The group also believes mentoring could be an effective way to help people reintegrate into society, help students with school, employees with work challenges, and overcome other barriers that lead to homelessness.
Another possibility is to implement an addiction awareness program to educate the community about drug and alcohol addictions that often go hand in hand in homeless populations.
"It's a major cause of individuals and families becoming homeless and staying on the streets," Brown said. "And recovery is challenging even in the best of environments, much less while homeless. It is a complicated problem intertwined with issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and mental illness."
The next meeting, which is open to the public, is slated for 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Western Beachfront Inn in Harbor.