Brookings City Council is considering creating a task force comprised of community members to address how the city, nonprofit and faith organizations in town could address the homeless and attendant and causal problems.

The issue came to the forefront last fall when the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled it unconstitutional to cite or arrest people who sleep on public property because they have nowhere else to go.

Brookings was inundated with homeless people, many camped out under trees at the library and port, forcing those boards to develop new rules of conduct and the city to post 72-hour eviction notices and beef up its rules in town parks.

“The Ninth Circuit turned us upside down,” said City Councilor Ron Hedenskog. “It left us wide open wondering what to do.”

The city has been bandying about the idea of defining zones in which people can sleep. Hedenskog said the city must first create ordinances addressing all aspects of such a facility.

City Manager Janell Howard noted Coos Bay’s conditional use permit for a warming shelter includes 28 special conditions by which the landowner and campers must abide.

“I’m thankful the city is even willing to look at this,” said Pamela Winebarger, executive director of the Brookings Harbor Food Bank. “It’s needed. I talk to a lot of men living in cars, sleeping in the woods, living in tents.”

A special workshop held Tuesday attracted dozens of stakeholders, including representatives from many Brookings-Harbor churches, coordinated care organizations, the local food bank, veterans advocates and others.

But it was Vicar Bernie Lindley — himself often the target of criticism for “luring” homeless to town with free services at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church near Azalea Park— who offered the first possible solution.

Lindley said he envisions Brookings emulating Medford, Eugene or Eureka’s efforts to address the problem, which would not only provide a safe place to sleep but help people get mental health, employment and health services that can contribute to homelessness.

“The idea is to put it on public land, owned by the city, that’s fenced in,” he said. “It would have structures — not large, not with electricity — but where people can sleep and secure their stuff while possibly looking for work.”

His idea is modeled after Medford’s Hope Village, which features seven duplexes, security at an entrance gate, and restrooms and cooking facilities in a central area. It could be leased to the nonprofit in charge and evaluated at the end of each year to determine its success.

“Medford’s been so happy, they’re looking to roll out 14 more (units) — double the size of what they have,” Lindley said.

Hope Village is self-governing, and people who live there pay a small fee so they have a base from which they can find employment, get permanent housing and obtain health services, among other needs.

“It’s just one rung in a ladder of getting people out of the deep pit they’re in,” Lindley said. “It’s one direction I think we need to go, to provide the opportunity for people to no longer live in bushes, to deter crime perpetrated by them and on them.”

He said a facility could be built on a third of an acre, with seven structures on a graveled area, for an estimated cost of $50,000. Much of the labor to build the units and ancillary infrastructure could be done by volunteers, with the city providing land, legal advice and planning services. Other needs could be funded with grants.

Problem multi-faceted

Many in the meeting acknowledged the problem isn’t just that people don’t have a place to live. Other factors, such as drug use, PTSD, mental illness, behavioral problems and lifelong poverty come into play, they said.

“We need to be ‘eyes wide open’ when we’re developing services,” said Beth Hidalgo of Oregon Coast Community Action. “We have a very diverse population (of homeless). We’ve got families living in cars, kids doing homework in the back seat, sleeping in the back seat. It’s going to take this multi-pronged approach to make this successful.”

Hedenskog noted the city might be the best place to build such a facility because Brookings has adequate law enforcement to address any increased volume in calls.

“If I were the sheriff, I’d deny it,” he said. “He does not have the ability to put law enforcement on something like this at the extreme ends of the county.”

There was also discussion about how many people need such services and thus, how big such a facility should be. The Point-in-Time survey, which tries to tabulate the number of homeless in each county to determine how state and federal funds are allocated, is taking place through the end of the month in Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford.

According to its latest figures, there are about 14,000 homeless people in Oregon, which extrapolates to less than 1 percent per capita of Oregon’s population, Hedenskog said.

“Twenty percent of our grade-school kids aren’t getting enough nutrition,” he said. “Twenty percent is a big number. Next to that, 1 percent isn’t a very significant number.”

Bill Waddle of Brookings Presbyterian Church noted, according to the same data, there are on any given night, 565,000 homeless on the streets in the U.S. More than 250,000 of those have some degree of mental illness and an additional 140,000 have severe issues.

Hedenskog said there must be a way to filter out dangerous people and refer others to mental health services before they can reside in such a facility — jobs that are often better undertaken by nonprofit organizations than municipalities.

“It sounds to me like those people would not meet your criteria to be included in a homeless facility, in which case, we’ve not addressed the problem at all,” Waddle said to Hedenskog. “If this community continues to turn a blind eye to the mental health issues, we’re not solving anything.”

Curry Community Health brings its services to those in extreme crisis and goes to people who are too embarrassed to seek help, said Erin Porter, the nonprofits’ behavioral health director.

“Curry County has programs to help people at ground zero,” said Mellanie Calera, of Oasis Women’s Shelter. “It’s finding the resources; they only hear by word of mouth, on the streets.”

Hope Village in Medford has an on-site case management office to help residents with mental and behavioral health issues, Hidalgo said.

Church involvement

Some church leaders said they wondered to what degree they are legally permitted to discuss religion with residents in homeless shelters — an issue many complained about with the now-defunct Outreach Gospel Mission in Harbor.

Hidalgo said prosthelysizing is often a barrier to helping people obtain long-term housing.

“I think this is necessary,” said Ken Whitted of the First Baptist Community Church. “As a church, scripture gives us a mandate to share the gospel with people, so they can change from the inside, as well. If someone comes in, can I say I really believe Jesus Christ can help? I’m not talking about going into buildings and taking captives, but I feel a personal mandate to do that.”

Most agreed generic discussion about beliefs could be tolerable, but making it a requirement for residency would likely keep those who need it most away.

Veterans advocate Connie Hunter said vets are eight times more likely to talk with someone in the faith community before they’d ever seek out help for mental health issues.

“It’s having a housing project that’s encouraging and welcome‚ that’s what veterans are looking for,” she said.

Others said they were there to let the city know the majority of people who seek help from their organizations — in particular the food bank and churches that serve free lunches — are not without homes.

Winebarger said about 10 to 15 percent of its clients are homeless; the vast majority are seniors, veterans and families. Church representatives presented similar numbers.

“The statistics are really interesting,” said a volunteer from St. Timothy’s, which serves 20,000 meals a year. “Seventy-eight percent aren’t homeless. Seniors represent 45 percent, then people who are unemployed, underemployed — people you know who work at the Pilot come. Ten to 15 percent are children. Only 30 percent are homeless. We’re there to feed families, the unemployed, the seniors who can’t afford to go to local restaurants.”

He admitted, however, that in the past three years he has seen many new faces among those seeking help.

The city plans to work with the stakeholders and form a task force to address the numerous issues involved in creating such a place. The city, he said, might be able to provide legal advice and planning services in collaboration with nonprofits.

“That’s the part the city can contribute to get this thing going,” Hedenskog said. “The rest will be up to the benevolence of the community.”

“The issue is that when government gets involved, sometimes things don’t work out,” said Mayor Jake Pieper. “Even having the city take the lead in a task force. If you want it to be done in the next 50 years, government isn’t always the best entity to undertake something like this.”

“If not you, then who?” demanded Waddle. “I wholeheartedly support the idea of a village. The city should take the lead in providing resources, and the faith-based can pitch in and do their part as well. We need to do what we can about it. It’s not going to go away.”

Others agreed it will take the array of resources in the community, working together, to make it work. Lindley said the city should craft its ordinances, identify potential parcels in town and leave the nonprofits to outline the operational plan of such a facility, which he feels could be designed after Hope Village in Medford.

“This is not a project that’s going to put a pretty little bow on this problem called homelessness,” Hidalgo said. “But we can provide a ladder for people to get into safe housing.”

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