Brookings City Council Tuesday night charged St. Timothy Episcopal Church Pastor Bernie Lindley to bring with him representatives of other churches to a future workshop and “overwhelm the city with ideas” about the homeless issues in town.
Homeless camps in the city have become more visible since the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled it is cruel and unusual punishment to cite or arrest people who do not have shelter for the night and are sleeping on public property.
Many homeless established camps at the Chetco Community Public Library, both ends of the Chetco River bridge and other places in town. Complaints spiked to law enforcement, including allegations that homeless persons were making aggressive comments toward library patrons, leaving trash, and relieving themselves in public.
Last week, the library asked the homeless to leave, citing rules in a new code of conduct. The city later hauled away a giant pile of trash from its parking lot last Friday after they’d been served a 24-hour notice.
The city addressed the issue for the first time in a council meeting Tuesday to let citizens know what they hoped to do about the homeless after Lindley asked them to convene a task force.
Lindley also requested the city consider allowing churches to apply for conditional use permits to allow camping on their own property.
There are 22 churches in town and, other than the daily community lunches served at five others churches, St. Timothy’s is the only one that has opened its doors for an array of services for the homeless.
“I seem to have created more animosity in town that I ever intended to,” Lindley told the council. “I want to build a solution for the homeless in the community. My hope is a solution to work together so no one feels they are working at odds with one another.”
Mayor Jake Pieper noted with the exception of health and safety, municipalities aren’t set up to address issues of people sleeping on public property.
“The homeless issue has to be addressed by a faith-based group,” Councilor Ron Hedenskog said. “We need to get it done before another 10 years goes by.”
The city has had to address complaints by citizens who blame Community Kitchens for attracting transients with the free lunches they offer. Participating churches include St. Timothy’s, Trinity Lutheran, Brookings Seventh-day Adventist, Star of the Sea Catholic and Brookings Presbyterian churches.
“I have heard people say that Brookings is the place to go because there’s a handout every day,” said Councilor Brent Hodges. “Part of that is great. Part of it is a perpetual problem. And something free every day isn’t helping them, either. I respect what Bernie does, I just don’t know if the best answer is to constantly have handouts.”
Lindley said his church serves about 65 lunches each week and that two-thirds of those are served to residents on limited incomes, are food-insecure or who attend for social reasons. Hedenskog has been the kitchen manager at that church for the past nine years; he is stepping down after having helped serve more than 30,000 meals at a cost of 65 to 70 cents per lunch.
Hedenskog said he’s spent countless sleepless nights wondering if his church’s community kitchens are helping or contributing to the problem. At one point, the city asked the churches participating in soup kitchens if they could find a common location from which to work, but most said they are established in their ways and weren’t eager to pursue that option.
“The word is out,” Hedenskog said. “If you feed them, they will come.”
He asked if there is a way to filter out those who truly need a hand up from those looking for a handout, but noted there is no law that would allow that.
“It must be handled through the faith-based community,” Hedenskog said. “They work outside the laws we are restricted to (obeying). We don’t want to spend tax money to solve this.”
Pieper said getting people involved in the past was difficult because they shy away from speaking pejoratively about the homeless — and he’s heard some say they fear their businesses would be negatively affected.
“In the last five years, the issues with the homeless have really ramped up,” Pieper said. “Now (phone) calls are completely off the hook. People are willing to speak; that’s changed. (The situation) has gotten crazy. It’s absolutely nuts. The city’s not the same as it was 10 years ago. We’ve always had homeless; but nothing to the extent we have now. What we have now is a huge influx.”
Lindley disagreed, saying after the meeting that most of those seen on the streets are local homeless, few are new faces to the area and his church has not seen a spike in demand for food since the court’s decision.
“The homeless come to Brookings; it’s a nice place to be homeless,” Pieper said. “We’ve attracted it. But at the city level, we look at the community vision and the people we wish to attract. The homeless are not a people-group I wish to attract to the city. My job, first and foremost, is for the safety of our citizens.”
Pieper said the issue has hit him personally, as well, when his wife was out jogging and was attacked by a homeless man’s dog. He said the man was drunk and passed out and couldn’t rein his dog in.
“The problem is real, and at the level of something like a serious crime wave or an epidemic in Brookings right now,” Pieper said. “There is something we can do. There are more tools we can give law enforcement.”
Among them, for example, could be changing municipal codes to ban alcohol consumption in public.
“Right now, the public feels hopeless,” Pieper said. “They call the police, the police come and there’s not a lot they can do. I don’t accept that, and I don’t think Brookings accepts that. We don’t need to lower our bar. We need to have expectations and fight for the community we had 10 years ago.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .