What we see behind the faces of a homeless family
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 (OR) 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 DHS 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 lead 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 okay 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. 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, a city council woman, the Lincoln County Sheriff, 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.
Newport Policewoman Jovita Ballentine and Sheriff Curtis Launders 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 Launders, mental illness and addiction are the root causes of the homeless 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 port-a-potty’s and storage facilities don’t address the fact “most people can’t afford to keep their car running when temperatures hit the low thirties or below.”
Also, at the meeting was a board member of Grace Wins Haven. Betty Kamikawa, president of the board of directors, ramified the point many in Newport and Lincoln County profess: “Hotels are struggling because of Air B & B. The vacation rentals have caused so many people to become homeless.”
I met people at Grace Wins after the task force adjourned. For Betty and the Haven director, Tracie Flowers, the crisis of unhoused individuals in Lincoln County is growing out of proportion to the solutions.
The US had a shortage of 7.8 million units of affordable housing for very low income (7.5 million) and homeless (400,000) households and individuals in 2017, according the National Low Income Housing Coalition using US Census data. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s count had number of homeless higher, at 550,000 on any given night. The US Department of Education reported that 1.5 million school children experienced a period of homelessness during 2017.
Amanda 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.”
“We need more shelters first,” Tracie said. “Too many people think the homeless are one type of individual. They are not.” That belief creates huge conflicts within social services agencies, non-profits, religious organizations, and for the homeless themselves.
Shelter Us from the Storm
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, 2020 church blog discusses one small effort to avail the housing shortage: six cottages at time on church property.
“We formed the Exploration Team which 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-parentfamilies. 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. 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 (AHP) 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 huge 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 of 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 farmer’s market,” Betty Kamikawa stated.
Since Housing and Urban Development (HUD) no longer funds states for shelters, the onus is on states, counties and municipalities to grapple with the steadily growing problem.
Running a Permanent Shelter Costs Money
Without financial support, and without volunteers, a shelter is a pipe dream. “We have to have financial support,” Jones stated.
Cynthia Jacobi, Newport City Council, told me at a PFLAG event at OCCC Feb. 8 she is hopeful that HB – 4001 will spur serious discourse on what to do about the homeless population in relationship to cities having the tools to allow for shelters. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has introduced a $120 million proposal to allow cities to more easily site homeless shelters. Kotek also wants a statewide emergency declaration on the homeless problem.
Jacobi too sees the need for immediate mitigation and a shelter for this emergency-sized problem here in Newport.
Pastor Ingalls on her blog tells her congregation a chilling fact most social services agencies in Lincoln County also shudder to contemplate – There’s a 17% homeless rate in our local schools. How a community frames the idea that nearly 1 out of every 5 students don’t have stable housing while the county is home to many second home residents will be important.
Several compelling stories about people who are homeless dying exposed to the elements were discussed at the meeting: According to Kamikawa, an 87-year-old Lincoln County resident was found dead in her car. She had been in an apartment living with her disabled son. Electrical wires were eaten through by rats. She had no electricity. She was evicted. She had a stroke while living in her car with her son.
Putting a face on and a story behind each homeless person might get the average person to think about how he or she can support a shelter and permanent housing solution as well as volunteering some hours each month to stem the tide of tragedies like this one.
Grilling Newport City Councilwoman
I decided to ask a Newport City Councilwoman some questions on homelessness and next steps.
Paul Haeder: What role do you see citizens joining the Homeless Task Force?
Cynthia Jacobi: I’m the City Liaison to the Homeless Work Group/coalition.
PH: What role do you see citizens joining the Homeless Task Force?
CJ: I see the role of citizens in the new homeless coalition work group (as yet without an official name or title) as coming forth with the best ideas tailored for our community. Social services, government entities, law-enforcement, interfaith community and concerned citizens can all have a Voice in shaping these policies.
PH: Why are you involved?
CJ: I have always felt a strong sense of social justice. I see Families with more than one parent working who still cannot afford safe and decent shelter. Sometimes the cost of an illness, a car repair, or other unexpected costs forces the choice between buying groceries or paying rent or utility bills. Children in unstable situations are especially vulnerable.
As a wealthy society, in good conscience we cannot say there is no room at the inn. We have the means to house all of our population. With strong leadership and compassion, I know we can do this.
PH: Will the Task Force cover larger issues?
CJ: There are so many overlapping issues:
The new Oregon State House Bill 4001 which may be a game changer in zoning, and funding.
All coastal communities have been addressing the Short-Term Rentals impact on housing inventory for working folks.
It is a valid suggestion to have a study on the actual impact economically and socially of STRs. For example: Does the room tax cover expenses of police and fire departments, wear on roads, etc.? Who would finance this study?
The City of Newport has been instrumental in building Surfview, the 110-apartment complex for lower-income citizens. This will open by summer. This was accomplished with a complex partnership of public and private funds, and the leadership in local city and county government. Need to do more of this.
PH: What role do you see mental health services playing in this move to have both temporary homeless facilities (a night facility) and also a warming shelter?
CJ: My understanding is that the county mental health providers have formed out-reach teams Which will go directly to unsheltered people, assess their needs and provide services and contacts for assistance.
PH: Car camping at churches and non-profits and governmental parking areas WITH some sort of case management and oversight seems like a good first step in getting the housing insecure into a system of evaluation and moving ahead with housing options. Is this the biggest and easiest priority now?
CJ: I think the quickest way to make an impact is to allow safe, supervised car camping in Newport. Newport Planning Commission is in the process of examining our ordinances to allow car camping in certain Defined areas. Along with oversight, outreach teams, and case management, this is the easiest first step to create safe shelter areas. Women, children, and seniors living in their cars are especially vulnerable. At the very least, they need a safe place to stay at night. We can do this.
I heard anecdotally that much of the seasonal help lives in their cars and rents small storage lockers for belongings.
PH: Do you know anyone personally or within a family circle who have been or are housing insecure, or homeless?
CJ: Personally, I have a few family members who have experienced bad luck, poor choices, and mental illness causing them to live in unstable conditions.
My husband, Gary, and I have volunteered at the overnight shelter. We have met people displaced from their previous long-term housing, people who can’t afford rent, people who are disabled.
A common problem is affordability when working folks have to pay the first month, the last month, a damage deposit and utility hook ups. Before any of this can happen, there is background check costing $50 per adult for each application, even to be placed on a waiting list. While realizing that landlords must be protected, this situation seems unfair. How many working families can afford $2500 and more up front?
PH: What role do businesses and the chambers have in helping get some sort of affordable housing for the very people who clean the fish, serve the food, chop the veggies, clean the hotels, etc.? Can we get a round-table together, a charrette, where we bring a large brain trust together to attack the housing insecurity and the street homeless issues as a multi-pronged problem to solve?
CJ: As far as the responsibilities of businesses and chambers of commerce: Some businesses have stepped up to help their workers. In particular, one of the fish plants has purchased motels and converted them to longer-term living quarters.
In the last few years, Newport has lost three large economy motels: one deteriorated and was bulldozed, one burned, and the fish plant bought another one. (or two?). These motels were often used as emergency shelters with vouchers by government agencies.
– The availability of housing related to jobs is affected by public transport access.
– Walkability and bicycle access are also important.