A groundswell of community effort, the centralization of resources, the political will of elected officials and possibly a parcel of land might be the solution to homelessness in Curry County, panelists and citizens agreed at a community meeting Sept. 5.
The panel was part of KCIW’s Discussions at the Brookings Cafe radio show, which addresses issues pertinent to the area, discusses ways to solve them and educates people in the process. It was moderated by Curry Coastal Pilot staff writer Boyd Allen.
Mike Thornton, lead organizer for True North Organizing Network in Crescent City, said communities throughout the United States must work toward ending homelessness, rather that attempting to manage it.
“We think that’s really important,” he said during the meeting that attracted a standing-room-only crowd in the Brookings library. “We’ve had buy-in from our supervisors (county commissioners, in Oregon), and council, we bring in law enforcement …
“We can’t keep punting homelessness to police and sheriffs,” he continued. “We can’t keep asking one or two churches to pick up the load, or the local hospital. We need the homeless, law enforcement, health care, community members at the table. We need people who are closest to the pain, who are most affected themselves, to be part of crafting the solution. It sounds like that’s starting to happen here.”
The two-hour meeting featured panelists Father Bernie Lindley of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, known for its outreach to those in need; AllCare Health Board Member and Curry County Community Advisory Council Chair Georgia Nowlin; and Beth Barker-Hidalgo, chair of the Curry Homeless Coalition board.
It began with an announcement that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Sept. 4 upheld a decision deeming it unconstitutional to fine or arrest a homeless person for sleeping on public lands.
“That means if someone is homeless and sleeping in Azalea Park, they cannot be asked to leave,” Lindley said. “That changes everything.”
The decision specifically reads that, if a homeless shelter is full, the overflow of people cannot be arrested if they have nowhere else to go but a public parcel of land. Curry County has one shelter, and it is reserved for victims of domestic violence.
Lindley hopes the decision will motivate the Brookings City Council to be more proactive in addressing the issue, perhaps by donating a parcel of land on which people can erect tents or build tiny homes.
“It’s a good day,” he said. “It’s a better day for folks who are homeless.”
Nowlin would like to see state law changed to allow accessory dwelling units — sometimes called mother-in-law units — on rural-residential property outside the Urban Growth Boundary.
“What I know is there’s no silver bullet,” Hidalgo said, noting that at one point in her life, she, too, was without a place to call home. “There’s no one size fits all solution for any community, and I’m coming from a place of real-world experience. What I know is I’m seeing more new faces — people, families — that have never, ever had to navigate the social service network. It’s overwhelming for people who don’t understand what’s happening and overwhelming for those going through the system.
Most in the audience wanted to know what nonprofits and governments could do to alleviate the problem. They addressed the lack of mental health care, transitional assistance
“We don’t need a pile of tents in Azalea Park,” Lindley said. “There needs to be a designated spot on city property with restrooms and electricity. The alternative is 100 people camping in Azalea Park.”
Nowlin noted that the entire system of housing — and not just here — is at a breaking point, with wages not keeping up with escalating rents, homeowners kicking out renters so they can transform their house into short-term vacation rentals, and the cost of building.
Once housing is addressed, services can be provided by the numerous existing nonprofits in the county and people can get back on their feet, she said.
“The public/private collaboration is a necessity,” Hidalgo said. “Emergency housing, transitional housing, supportive housing. It is difficult to put someone in an apartment complex and have any expectation they’re going to be successful. Municipalities can have serious dialogues with private sector, non-profits, faith-based organizations about what belongs in our community.”
A degree of compassion and understanding is vital, as well, Lindley said.
“I’m not talking about couch-surfers,” he said. “I’m talking about people sleeping on cold, hard ground or in their cars, wrapped up in a tarp.”
Hidalgo agreed, saying, “Until you know a person’s story, until you know the ‘why’ behind the decisions and priorities in their lives; if you’re not willing to listen, you’re making assumptions about why they do things they do. If you have never approached someone on the sidewalk, said, ‘Hi, my name is, and how can I help you?’ and start that dialogue.”
Many in the county agree they live from paycheck to paycheck and note that one medical disaster could have them living on the streets, as well.
And while housing should be the first key, the panelists agreed, shelters are not the solution.
“We need better solutions than putting people in church basements,” Lindley said.
“Shelters are not the answer,” Hidalgo said. “It’s only a Band-aid. Every shelter bed from here to Lincoln City is full.”
Another problem, particularly in Curry County, is the inability of law enforcement to do much. Many inmates in the Curry County jail have mental health issues and shouldn’t be housed in a place for criminals. And because the county is financially strapped, law enforcement is reduced to a catch, release and repeat method of dealing with homeless people.
“The trip to the ER, the ambulance, urgent care, the criminal justice system — those numbers add up,” Hidalgo said of the cost of homeless issues. “It costs far less to house them in an apartment or house of some sort and help with rent support. Spending money we don’t have to prosecute people who can’t pay fines? It’s a vicious cycle. And we’re so used to it we fell asleep at the wheel.”
Curry County’s housing market has been tight for years, with many on waiting lists — particularly for Section 8 housing — to get a place of their own.
“There aren’t enough units,” Hidalgo said. “And if you get a Section 8 voucher, you have 120 days to find a unit, at a fair-market rent. If you can’t, you just lost your voucher. There is too high a demand for inventory.”
Even Lindley, who has rental properties of his own to complement his salaries from pastoring and as a fisherman, doesn’t “need” to rent to those with such vouchers.
“In a half-hour on Craigslist, the place is rented and I can take the pick of anyone I want,” he said, adding that he doesn’t act that way. “But if you have a Section 8 voucher, you’re going to have to go (to another county); unfortunately that’s the way it is.”
Nowlin and Lindley believe a short-term solution would be to get the county and municipalities to dedicate some of its unoccupied lands on which affordable housing can be built.
But Lindley noted there must be buy-in from the community and elected officials.
“It’s whether they’ll support us or not,” he said. “It’s not the case that no one wants homeless in our city; it’s that there’s no desire to work toward a solution. Zoning wouldn’t happen easily, if at all. I don’t see where we can bend peoples’ attitudes without using a hammer.”
Some in the audience said they felt even feeding the homeless merely enables them to continue living the lifestyle — and encourages more to move to the area.
“You’re not talking about our safety; you want us to embrace these people,” one man said. “What are you doing —”
“What we’re doing is feeding them,” Lindley said.
“Enabling them,” another man interjected from the audience.
“Would you rather they be dead?” Lindley said.
“It all comes down to choices,” the man said.
“Oh, is that right? People don’t choose to live on the ground,” Lindley said. “We’re encouraging them to stay alive.”
“But not here, in Brookings, Oregon,” the man said.
Later, another audience member said homeless people move here because the climate is mild and churches feed them every day.
“They’re putting that hand out there,” he said. “There’s definitely people who need help, but a lot are able to work: ‘I pulled weeds for Ms. Betty today; I didn’t just sit in the bushes and drink 40s.’”
“As a community, we made the commitment to (provide people with) one hot meal each day,” Lindley said, noting that he can’t weed out the homeless from the ranks of seniors and working poor who eat at the churches each week. “I don’t decide who is worthy of our support.”
Expense of affordable
Hidalgo noted that building affordable housing might be a difficult endeavor, at best.
There’s the cost of the land, the sewer and water hook-ups, the permits, the architectural plans. By the time it’s done, she said, it’s a $350,000 building — and that’s not affordable.
Resident Randy Loring said he inherited some land and hoped to build a fourplex for affordable housing on it. That’s not happening, he said.
“The city wants $16,437 for each sewer hookup before I even put a shovel in the ground,” he said. “Water is $400 a month for that property.”
The owner of the vacant lot north of the high school football field told Loring a similar story, he said.
“He was going to put 36 units in there,” Lording said.”But it’s $446,000 — $12,000 for each toilet. That’s why he didn’t build. Who can afford to build something for low-income in this town? It ain’t going to happen in this current environment.”
“And winter’s coming,” Hidalgo said. “That’s not just a Game of Thrones tagline. Winter’s coming.”
Mental health, homeless
Some in the audience said they are afraid of homeless people, some of whom have serious illnesses or drug addictions and resort to criminal activity to get by. Even Lindley has had two vehicles stolen from him and people high on methamphetamine barge into his house.
The stigma against those with mental health issues remains strong, the panelists agreed, and it is exacerbated when that person is homeless.
“You break your arm, you get a cast; you do not even hesitate,” Hidalgo said about medical needs. “But because of the stigma of mental health, people are afraid to self-identify. I don’t want to lose my job. If I divulge that I’m struggling with mental health, do I risk losing my livelihood?”
She said in Curry County, there are 310 mental health patients per provider — and 1,400 patients per physician.
“Where do we even house the providers?” Hidalgo said. “It’s all interconnected and we need a multi-prong approach to dealing with social issues in Curry County.”
The problem is not new, and panelists agreed one agency alone cannot solve the problem. Hidalgo is trying to coordinate what is available — food stamps, Oregon Health Plan, Medicaid, peer support specialists, even off-hour taxi service — to help recently-released inmates get their lives back together.
“We have to start somewhere; we have to eat the elephant one bite at a time,” she said.
Hidalgo related a story of a woman in prison and while there, the community was wondering how they were going to deal with a repeat offender.
“It’s been eight months?” she said. “There’s been no rearrest because of people with compassion and empathy and the support she needs to be successful. It’s been an amazing story to watch unfold. It can happen, but it takes a community so they don’t slide off the rails.”
A few in the audience were homeless themselves, and said they’d like to see a labor-pool option so they can work, collect a daily paycheck and restore some dignity to their lives. Others noted that they can’t get jobs because they have a pre-existing medical condition — or even a service dog.
Denying those things to people might be illegal, but it happens all the time, audience members related. One lady with epilepsy “earns” 25 to 30 cents a day flying a sign because her condition prevents her from getting work. Without work, she has no home. Without an address, she has nowhere to have her disability check or food stamps sent.
“Citizen engagement is needed,” said Brookings resident and mayoral candidate Teresa Lawson. “All these preaching Bible bangers ... you walk into St. Tims and you see the Lord’s work really being done. These are our citizens.
“It can spiral up, rather than spiral down,” she continued. “Things can get better or they can get worse, let’s make them get better.”