Tuesday, June 7, 2016

MWHITF: Meeting 4 - Chronically Homeless

Marissa's Tent
Well-worn trails wind between the campsites, now mostly abandoned, in the woods just off Portland Road NE, near the Kale Street 'T' intersection.  We went there a few weeks ago to observe as Salem police and social workers (Salem Housing Authority and Community Action Agency) spoke with each of the inhabitants, letting them know they were on private property and couldn't keep staying there.  One of the workers was packing a thermos of coffee, bottles of water, and granola bars, which she offered to the young woman in the first tent.  She was crying, embarrassed,  very thirsty.

"This is insane to me", Marissa sobbed, "I never thought I'd be freakin' homeless."  She said her ex had tried to kill her last August.  "I had an amazing life, until last August."  Before then, she had worked as a CNA.  Her hands were trembling.  "I'm the one who cares for people," she insisted.  "I thought I'd have no trouble camping in the woods.  I've been camping.  But this, this is way too scary."  I later asked if I could take her photo, for which she volunteered a smile.

We left the workers to talk to Marissa about where she planned to go next, and moved on to the next camp.  We found Kevin in his kitchen.  He had clearly occupied his site for years.  "It
Kevin's Main Tent
used to be a lot cleaner", he told one of the officers.  Yes, he'd been to the (Union Gospel) Mission, "I won't go back there", he said, shaking his head.

Pretty clearly, he wasn't going to "go" anywhere.  He would stay where he was, unless he was arrested.  He was warned he had to leave.  The worker from Community Action Agency's ARCHES project asked if he was a veteran.  He was.  He needed ID, though.  The worker left his card and asked Kevin to call him.

Kevin obviously had mental health issues, as did the other occupants of the camp.  No one thought Kevin was going to call, and he didn't.  And Marissa didn't show up Monday morning at the coffee shop per that plan, either.  Most likely, despite meaning it when she told the worker she was ready to deal with her addiction, she was in a different frame of mind by Monday.  The SHA workers went looking for her, but could not find her.

No one was arrested during the operation - that day, or the following week.

Shirley (left, middle) and her Tent

Offering services instead of arresting people in circumstances like these is one of the "Innovative Public Safety Strategies" the Task Force heard about at its fourth Meeting.  It's commonly referred to as "harm reduction", and is properly considered a public health, rather than a public safety, strategy.  It's been around in some form since the 1980s.  The other two strategies that the Task Force heard about Monday are basically variations of harm reduction.  They were, specifically, the Crisis Outreach Response Team or CORT, which has been in use for the last 10 years and you can read about at the link, and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion or LEAD, which Dallas, Oregon, started implementing last summer and is based on Seattle's successful pilot project.

It's always good when our public officials discontinue strategies that are a) inhumane, and b) don't work.  Or, as Task Force member David Leith commented, "you always change a losing game plan."

Doing that's not exactly innovation, though.  And when the problem is trespass - a subject not even touched on at the meeting - "move along, you can't stay here" is still the strategy in Salem, at least for individuals who're "chronically service resistant."

Given that circumstance, it's more than a little odd that the Task Force hasn't yet talked about the possibility of some form of sanctioned outdoor shelters (aka, "legalized camping"), like Right 2 Dream Too in Portland and the development of Seattle's tent cities.  And then there's Eugene, which is about to open its fourth "sanctioned homeless encampment" and close to starting construction on its second micro-housing project, which Veneta, Medford, and maybe even Keizer, are wanting to replicate in some form. (Last March, Keizer's mayor asked City staff for a list of city-owned land that might be appropriate for a micro-housing development.)

We're not suggesting that sanctioned outdoor shelters are the way to go.  They are not typically any more accessible to the "chronically service resistant" than indoor shelters.  And, we agree with the policy wonks who say that outdoor shelters don't end homelessness, and can be a distraction from the primary goal, which is to get everyone into permanent housing. 

But, if you believe, as does the Mayor of Salem, that the number of homeless camping along the Willamette River is rising and that they will pour into Minto-Brown Island Park when the pedestrian bridge opens, and if you believe "it only stands to reason that Salem’s housing problem will worsen just as Portland’s has", forcing more Salem residents into homelessness, then you probably think the Task Force should be at least be studying stopgap measures like sanctioned outdoor shelters.  Unless, of course, you're okay with having a whole lot more folks living in the woods, as has happened in Guerneville, California.

Dozens of tents, hidden among the trees and clinging to muddy hillsides, dot the landscape in and around the bucolic resort town of Guerneville, California
Likely migration route across the bridge to unsanctioned sites on the river's east side
Living in the woods because you have no other viable option is generally bad for everyone, including the environment, a fact now being recognized in tangible ways by the institutions created under the Affordable Health Care Act.  As illustrated in our blog about Camp Hayden, when owners ask police to help them with a "camp cleanup", the need is clear and action generally long overdue.

A committee of the Salem Homeless Coalition, which also met on Monday, has supposedly been working on a proposal to replicate Eugene's Rest Stops (aka, "Safe Spots") in Salem, but, so far, it's all talk.  They haven't even asked for a list of city-owned land that might be appropriate for use.  Task Force member Jon Reeves and two other Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency staff are on the committee.     

The Task Force is clearly struggling (using that term loosely, as it doesn't appear they're trying all that hard) to figure out what kind of numbers they're dealing with.  But at Monday's meeting, they soundly rejected Commissioner Carlson's proffer of the PIT Count figures during the "Target Populations" portion of the meeting, which frustrated Commissioner Carlson's poorly-communicated purpose to use those figures in defining further the responsibilities of the individual committees.

As to the committees, there were reports, none of substance, and some rearranging of the deck chairs.  Overall attendance was way down, by more than half, Bruce Bailey sent a substitute again (Jeanine Knight, of UGM Simonka Place) and Mayor Clark, Shaney Starr, Ron Hays and Irma Oliveros were all absent.

The takeaway from this meeting was the shockingly honest comment by Commissioner Carlson toward the end, "We're just kind of dabbling in topics" at this point, waiting for the committees to come forward with recommendations.

The next Task Force meeting is July 20, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. The Task Force might also be consider making recommendations to remediate legislatively some of the past harms of the failed "broken windows" policy. See http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/states-rethink-collateral-consequences-report-v4.pdf