(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series on Lincoln County’s homeless population)
LINCOLN COUNTY — The tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to homelessness is what the average person sees on Newport’s streets — mostly men, some women, seeking a public or private building’s overhang to get out of the rain.
Many on the streets are disheveled, struggling with mental health issues and addiction. Others are not so easily identified as homeless people.
Creating a permanent warming shelter is one stop-gap measure the Newport Working Group on Homelessness has been grappling with for more than a year.
On Feb. 5, more than 20 people filled the cramped space in the Avery Building, where Department of Human Services offices are co-located with other agencies, to move this group into achievable goals.
Outside the DHS office, fighting against the gale force rain, many of these house-less people were on the covered concrete pad that leads up to the offices housing SNAP and TANF DHS workers.
They were seeking a dry space and companionship.
I asked one fellow — he said he goes by Fred, age 47 — what he wants immediately as a homeless citizen.
“Look, I see families out there with kids in tents. That’s just not right. I am OK living in the woods, but even a dude like me wants something, some place, to get out or the rain and cold. Even some simple open carport like structure, man. Nothing fancy. They should be all over the place.”
We talked about portable toilets, even cold-water taps and sanitary soaps.
“Look, with this virus over in China, coming here … you think the powers to be would think about sanitation,” he said. “I guess the solution is to let us die off in the woods … or ship us off to come sort of camp.”
Task force with teeth?
Inside the Avery Building, a city council woman, the Lincoln County Sheriff, a plethora of social services leaders, private citizens and others coalesced to try to come up with a plan and priorities. The agenda to create safe transitional housing, welcoming and effective car camping regulations, policies for tent camping areas and siting a warming shelter is daunting. Also on the agenda was the big slice of the pie — addressing health and health-related issues.
Community Service Officer Jovita Ballentine, with the Newport Police Department, and Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers were among the group wondering how all this money spent on services for these so-called “frequent users” of the ER really helps people with mental health issues who spend their days hanging out at such places as the Newport Rec Center.
For Landers, mental illness and addiction are the root causes of the homeless that police agencies run into on a daily basis.
For Samaritan House director Lola Jones, helping homeless get out of the elements and into programs to assist them into permanent housing are part of a bigger picture. She reiterated that the task force is not a panacea for all the underlying issues why people end up homeless.
Amanda Cherryholmes, Lincoln City manager for Communities Helping Addicts Negotiate Change Effectively (C.H.A.N.C.E.), was quick to push back on the myth that more homeless services in an area will bring more homeless into the community. Cherryholmes cited counterarguments to that belief. She also pointed out that car camping allowances and even some concerted effort to have designated spaces with portable toilets and storage facilities don’t address the fact “most people can’t afford to keep their car running when temperatures hit the low 30s or below.”
Also at the meeting was a board member of Grace Wins Haven. Betty Kamikawa, board president, made the point that many in Newport and Lincoln County say, “Hotels are struggling because of Airbnbs. The vacation rentals have caused so many people to become homeless.”
I met people at Grace Wins after the task force adjourned. For Kamikawa and the Haven director, Traci Flowers, the crisis of unhoused individuals in Lincoln County is growing out of proportion to the solutions.
Shelter us from the storm
“We need more shelters first,” Flowers said. “Too many people think the homeless are one type of individual. They are not.” That belief creates huge conflicts within social services agencies, nonprofits, religious organizations and for the homeless themselves.
Cherryholmes wants a more robust assessment of people coming into shelters and transitional housing. “We need to figure out what services the individual needs. Each one has different needs,” she said.
She militated against the idea just any individual should end up in a warming shelter or in car camping arrangements. “There are two distinct groups — families and young people needing shelter, and then single men.” She pointed out that having a sexual offender among a group of homeless in a communal setting is not a good idea. There are some brighter horizons in the mix. Some churches are stepping up to the plate.
Tiny homes, relaxing zoning
Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Kelsey Ingalls, on her Feb. 2 church blog, discussed one small effort to avail the housing shortage: six cottages on church property.
“We formed the exploration team that is undertaking a feasibility study to form a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Lincoln County and other local service agencies to help meet the housing needs of homeless, single-parent families,” wrote Ingalls. “The exploration team is looking into the idea of building six, two-bedroom/one-bath cottages on the southeast corner of the church campus. We are proposing a circular village layout with front porches and a central common area. Supportive services would be provided by our local service agency partners.”
Before the task force convened, Blair Bobier, regional director of Legal Aid Services, sent out an email framing the impetus behind the Newport Working Group on Homeless.
“There are many service providers who agree that some form of a ‘coalition’ model is an important next step towards addressing homelessness in our community,” said Bobier. “In other places, one form of this model included a regular meeting of elected officials and law enforcement, along with service providers, to ensure that there was sufficient coordination among involved parties. As has been pointed out, here in Newport, the Lincoln County Affordable Housing Partners is a great example of service providers coming together on a regular basis — along with developers, government officials and members of the faith community — to exchange information and work towards common goals.”
With this large brain trust in one room, and the compassion and passionate solutions-driven people commenting on what needs to be prioritized, it’s clear Newport and Lincoln County at large have many hurdles to overcome as homelessness, and housing precarious situations are growing.
Relaxing zoning laws and rolling up sleeves will help develop coordinated efforts to get people out of the cold, screen people through various social services resources and begin to help coastal communities look at the long-range health of affordable housing in this coastal area.
“Over the two years operating, Grace Wins has had over 2,000 clients coming through. Some stay a while. The fact is by this September there will be no winter shelter, as the commons will be torn down. Nothing for the homeless and the farmers market,” Kamikawa said.
Since Housing and Urban Development no longer funds states for shelters, the onus is on states, counties and municipalities to grapple with the steadily growing problem.
(Part two in this series will appear in a future edition of the News-Times)
Paul Haeder works in Lincoln County for an anti-poverty nonprofit, Family Independence Initiative, through State of Oregon County DHS funding. His new short story collection, "Wide Open Eyes — Surfacing from Vietnam" was just published by Cirque Press. He's worked as a case manager for veterans, foster youth and others facing homelessness, substance abuse and employment hurdles.