Friday, December 8, 2017

Those Statesman Journal "Answers"

Statesman Journal's New Offices, Photo Courtesy SJ
Since moving out south to 340 Vista Avenue last May, the Statesman Journal's perspective on Salem's homeless residents has altered somewhat. 

While in CANDO, at 280 Church Street, staff took their latte breaks at the Ike Box, along with their homeless neighbors, looked out their windows at the transit mall, and could walk downtown anywhere they needed to go.  And anywhere downtown they went, there were CANDO's homeless residents, also.

There are few homeless out in the Vista neighborhood, however, or at the French Press, in the Roth's parking lot (not counting the panhandlers on the corner), or in the Candalaria neighborhood, to the west.   

Judging by its most recent article, Your Questions about Salem, Oregon's Homeless Crisis, Answered, the new perspective hasn't improved its reporting on the subject.

For this latest article, the SJ asked readers to "guide our reporting by sending in questions they have" about Salem's homeless through a note on their FB page.  SJ claims the questions they chose to answer were the "most frequently asked", but they were clearly cherry-picked from among those posted on its note.

Questions Answered

"What are the demographics of homeless people in Salem?", "Why, all of a sudden, has Salem's homeless population swelled?", "What barriers do they face on the path to not being homeless anymore?"  "What's being done in other parts of town [than the central area and] What about warming shelters?"  "What type of outreach are officials doing for the homeless rental assistance program?"  "Are there shelters where the homeless can have pets with them?"  "Are there homeless shelters in Salem that are non-religious?"  "What shelter options exist for homeless teens?"  

Questions Not Answered
These questions, which were not answered, were also posted to the SJ's note:  "How does the City's plan to invest $45K in a "Homeless Program Coordinator" at the Council of Governments [COG] fit with the City's recently adopted Strategic Plan goals and strategies for Affordable Housing, Social Services and Homelessness [AHSSH]? Is the City counting on the COG position to implement the City's AHSSH goals and strategies? If not, why create the additional layers of oversight? Aren't the Policy and Steering Committee and the Coordinator going to be duplicating existing efforts?"  "How about answering the same questions for this area that the Seattle Times is working to answer for the Seattle area in its Project Homeless initiative?"  "Is SJ willing to 'pull back the curtain on the response system and see how well it serves the distinct populations of homeless'?"  "Do the homeless really want help? If so, what kind? How many are elderly? How many are teen? How many shelter beds are available in Marion-Polk counties? How many are needed?  Why don't you talk homeless people? What are their stories? What kind of help do they need?"  "Are there plans to create other shelter options like tiny houses, etc?" "What are the timelines on the projects underway, like the day-use center? What can citizens do to help those in need?" "What is Salem doing/going to do to help provide more comprehensive mental health care to these individuals?" "How...are [city officials] coordinating the different pieces in this plan re: banning loitering on sidewalks before a day Center or rental assistance program are up and running wouldn't be very effective."  "How can existing supports be augmented to address homelessness and issues related to homelessness instead of creating new infrastructure?" "What can be done so that the shelters are more comfortable for people? Can we look into coed shelters? Can we look into ways to help the homeless who have pets? What about a daytime shelter?" "How many choose the homeless life style, living on the streets, in cars and in our parks? If they refuse help, then what?" "Is anyone doing anything to address the root causes of homelessness?" "How are city zoning laws effecting housing prices, and is there anything to be done to lower prices so housing is more attainable?" "Are the homeless [in Salem] transients looking for handouts or have they lived in Salem, and actually need help?"

"A Variety of Experts"

The SJ article claims they "reached out to a variety of experts" to answer the eight cherry-picked questions.  Those "experts" were Dan Clem, former Salem city councilor and Union Gospel Mission (UGM) Director since May of this year, Stephen Goins with Northwest Human Services (NWHS), Jimmy Jones with MWVCAA, and TJ Putman, Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network Director.

Dr. Jones, who was quoted in five of the eight answers, holds a doctorate in European History, and joined MWVCAA in July 2016 as a coordinated entry specialist.  In March, 2017, he was promoted to Director of its Community Resources Program, and became the driving force behind The Golden ARCHES Project.  He probably would not consider himself an "expert." 

Mssrs. Clem and Putman also probably would not consider themselves experts.  They answered the questions about the role of religion and pets in shelters.  Stephen Goins, who might actually deserve to be called an "expert", being a qualified mental health practitioner who for several years has managed HOST and HOAP for NWHS as Director of Transitional Programs, was asked about barriers to recovery.

The Answers 

 Bowl of Apples, Photo Courtesy HGTV
Answering, "Why, all of a sudden, has Salem's homeless population swelled?" (and without pausing to examine the question's premise), the SJ quotes Dr. Jones, who "likens the noticeable uptick to a bowl of apples on a table. If there were one apple in the bowl, you might walk by and not notice it. But as you put more apples in the bowl, they'll start to spill over.  'Eventually, you're going to have a whole table full of apples, overflowing everywhere else,' he said. 'And then, all of the [sic] sudden, you're going to notice that.'"  

Really?  The homeless are like a bowl of apples on a table?  

Dr. Jones is also "quoted" as saying that Salem's unsheltered homeless population grew from about 200 in 2014, to about 500 in 2017.  When we asked Dr. Jones how he arrived at the 2014 estimate, he demurred.  "We [he and the SJ] talked for 30 minutes, and I don't remember the context of it all...[the number was] something akin to the street count in the PIT in 2014."  (The MWVCAA's 2014 Point in Time Count report indicates 202 unsheltered individuals were surveyed in Marion and Polk Counties that year.)  When we asked why he would accept the 2014 PITC figure, but not the 2017 PITC figure of 295, he admitted he thought the 2014 count was wrong, but didn't want to venture a guess as to the true number.  

So, the SJ article wrongly suggests, based on Dr. Jones's unexamined opinion, that Salem's homeless population has been growing by 100 more apples a year.  It also seems to suggest that those apples are "overflowing everywhere" because the bowl's not big enough.  Or something.  

SJ Photo: A Sack Lunch at ARCHES
If you don't find the SJ's answer satisfying, try this:  the perceived "uptick", which was noted primarily in CANDO's central area, was the result of the decision by the then UGM management, in the summer of 2016, to close the  locker program, "because of the difficulty preventing the lockers from being used to store drugs", and the day room, so as to encourage long-term guests to get out and seek work.  

This change in policy meant men who had previously been able to move about the city without all their belongings in tow (i.e., without necessarily appearing to be homeless), were no longer able to do so.  Others, some in wheelchairs and unable to work, who previously had remained in the day room, were forced outside the building, where they just waited until they were allowed back in.  The fact that UGM is located prominently next to the Center Street Bridge just added to their visibility.  So did the closing of the ARCHES day shelter on Madison Street back in June, and The Salvation Army's decision to cut back on its programs for the homeless in August, and the ARCHES inability, since June, despite its being a requirement of the state funding ARCHES  received for the purchase of the building, to open a day shelter at its new Commercial Street location.  That failure has meant, among other things, that the sack lunches ARCHES distributes every M-F must now be eaten outside, in the weather -- a fact the SJ article depicted but failed to appreciate as contributing to the perceived "uptick" in the downtown homeless population it was attempting unsuccessfully to explain.

Note: the SJ also failed to report that, last July, CANDO sent a recommendation to the City Council
which was backed by the Salem Police Department and Stephen Goins, to pilot a locker program to replace the one lost in 2016, with no response.  MWVCAA has indicated in grant applications and reports that it intends to institute a locker program in its new building, but, so far, nothing's been done.
So, aside from the apple thing, the article offers little that was not already published here, on social media, and through Dr. Jones's speaking engagements at Rotary Clubs and such like over the past year.  (See links above under Questions Answered.)  One newsbit:  according to Dr. Jones, "Once our day center is done, we plan on using it as a nighttime warming center with a bit higher trigger, maybe 32 degrees."  

For MWVCAA to use their new building as a shelter for people experiencing homelessness would be a  nice change of pace.  But, bear in mind that when anyone from MWVCAA says "plan", what they usually mean is "hope", or "thought about."  It doesn't mean they're actually doing anything to make it happen, though you wouldn't know that from the lazy journalism of the Statesman Journal.

[12/12/17 Update: should have noted that UGM re-opened it's day room ~June 2017 (as reported here in the Archive).