In sometimes heated exchanges and with panelists occasionally being cut off by the crowd, politicians, advocates and citizens addressed homeless issues at a meeting last Friday in Curry County.
Curry County Commissioner Court Boice invited citizens to the forum Nov. 28 at the Kalmiopsis Elementary School cafeteria in Brookings saying he wanted to look for solutions on homelessness in the county.
“We know this issue is not going away,” he said, “so the time for additional planning is now.”
Boice began the meeting by listing some of his biggest issues or priorities for Curry County, including the high suicide rate, homelessness and transients.
Panelists included Chris Ihle, Veterans Health Care System; Beth Barker-Hidalgo, president Curry Homeless Coalition; Lauren Paulson, homeless advocate; Mary Rowe, homeless advocate; Bill Buchanan, urban planner; Connie Hunter, Brookings Harbor Community Helpers Emergency Food Bank and Shannon Souza, water, energy and shelter specialist.
Brookings Mayor Jake Pieper and City Manager Janell Howard sat on the panel as well. Pieper said he was attending to gain information for the city council and listen to citizens’ concerns, but his emphasis was on keeping the city safe and protecting its assets.
Howard said she wished to work with nonprofits, care providers and coordinated care organizations to solve problems related to homelessness.
Panelists offer ideas
Rowe said she would like to see the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation work in Curry County to improve people’s credit and offer training so people could rent and retain apartments. She said she does street outreach with the homeless to help them achieve goals.
Paulson suggested both the homeless and residents read and be aware of the rights of homeless people.
Many county homeless and residents are food insecure or experiencing hunger, according to Hunter, and she said homelessness and hunger exacerbate mental health and other health issues. She noted that food donations are decreasing while need is rising.
According to Hunter, Oregon spends less on mental health care than any other state.
Buchanan emphasized the inter-relatedness of actions, saying that if the community wishes to succeed, it needs to find ways to “take care of everyone.” He said one key is to let law enforcement deal with issues that arise because “that’s why the we created them.” He later warned against vigilantism.
Hidalgo said new coordinated entry assessments — a record created to illustrate someone’s situation and needs — showed 26 percent of local homeless people scored in the high-need category and needing permanent, supportive, housing assistance.
“We do not have programs for them,” she added.
But as the night wore on, no specific plans arose and the audience divided between panel members and some attendees who wanted to help the homeless and a larger contingent of residents who expressed concerns about the effects of the homeless on safety and quality of life.
An agenda written by Oregon Coast Community Action Director Mike Lehman and revised by volunteer and newly elected Gold Beach Councilor Summer Matteson and Hidalgo was never taken up. The agenda asked why the region is experiencing an increase in homelessness, included items such as “myths about the homeless,” and suggested long-term and short-term solutions.
Carol Beene said she applauded the panel, but said she was there to speak about the homeless who were causing friction, “threatening and defecating.”
“Those people just showed up and were not here before,” she said. “These vagrants are causing friction, and I don’t want them here, and I want something done about it.”
Tom Beene added that most of the homeless are doing “drugs and such and made that choice” while there are others who had no choice.
“I don’t care what happens to them,” he said of those using drugs. “If you give them money, they’ll just buy another bottle of Thunderbird.”
In a similar vein, business owner Bob Pieper said the forum should have been split so as not to address veterans’ homeless issues with the homeless in general, saying that veterans should be helped, but people need to “get these vagrants out of our town –– get rid of them. They’re only here to take.”
Boice asked participants to remain patient and respectful and complimented people for offering their experiences and ideas, but as more people wanted to speak, they grew impatient as the microphone was carried from speaker to speaker. Some decided on an order of their own and demanded the mic for those they thought had waited long enough.
At one point, Buchanan began to reply to a comment made about Section 8 or public housing but was met with a jeer of “bull s..t” before members of the audience spoke over him.
At another point, Hunter was drowned out by the audience as she tried to discuss benefits available for veterans.
Michael Albert, a retired Los Angeles police officer, said the town needed to give the police an opportunity to enforce the law. He suggested an ordinance on littering that would lead to citations and then having those charged pay or work off their citations. The courts could then issue a warrant for those who failed to pay or work, he said, “and then the police have teeth.”
A former Sacramento resident warned “if you build it, they will come,” and said the community was bringing the homeless into town with handouts. He said he left Sacramento because the homeless had ruined the city.
Facebook group Brookings Watch administrator Mat Coley accused Buchanan of “calling him out on social media and claiming that Coley’s group was backed by the 3%ers.” He added the group was not associated with the 3%ers and said his group patrols and reports to the police.
The 3%ers is a group or militia pledged to protest and resist against attempts to curtail constitutional rights, according to Wikipedia.
Brookings Watch works with local law enforcement, according to Coley, and has received guidance on its actions from Brookings Police Detective Travis Wright.
Buchanan said, “A lot of people are afraid of your group… you are usurping the power of the police.”
He accused some in Brookings Watch of encouraging harassment of the homeless and said one member suggested residents run over the homeless while they slept.
Several speakers addressed the room, one asking, “Where is your compassion?” and another decrying the “anger and hate” she had heard.
Boice said, “While I certainly have a long ways to go, I’m learning more and more from all perspectives. Unfortunately
public officials usually play the middle, but that’s not me.”
He said he would work to develop wise approaches to the issues and apply those approaches without wasting time.
Reach Boyd C. Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org