Sunday, August 14, 2016

Task Force Chair Rants About City's Failure to Plan for Homeless

Mayor and MWHI Task Force Co-Chair Anna Peterson
"I see no plan that has come forward to how we’re going to address the tremendous increase in the camping and the loitering and the littering that goes along with it.  I don’t see any plan coming forward.  I don’t sense any sense of urgency on the part of the City to address a problem that’s creating unsightly issues in our neighborhood, people camping under the High Street Bridge and the parks." - Mayor Anna Peterson 

Last week at the Salem City Council meeting, Mayor and Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force Co-Chair Anna Peterson chided the City Council and City Staff about the increasing numbers of people camping in and around Salem, including under the bridge next to her High Street condo, and the City's failure to develop a plan to address the problem:   

I will speak to the motion [to increase the hours of the new park ranger position from ½ time to ¾ time] …there is a huge concern out in the community about how these parks are going to be supervised with the new bridge which is going to attract more of the public to them, but also which is going to create greater flow of everybody who uses the parks which does include the growing homeless population that we have here in Salem…I am concerned about two things: I am concerned that we do not enforce the rules that we have on our books.  We do not enforce the ordinances that we have now, because if we did, we would not have camping in the parks.  If we did, we wouldn’t have the illegal behaviors that are allowed to go on at Marion Square Park.  We just simply wouldn’t have them.  But we don’t enforce, and I’ve been complaining about it ever since I became Mayor, and I’ve really been complaining about it in the last couple of years.  I see no change.  I see no plan that has come forward to how we’re going to address the tremendous increase in the camping and the loitering and the littering that goes along with it.  I don’t see any plan coming forward.  I don’t sense any sense of urgency on the part of the City to address a problem that’s creating unsightly issues in our neighborhood, people camping under the High Street Bridge and the parks, et cetera.  That’s one very big concern I have…I know I sound like I’m going off on a rant here…
Maybe it's true that, if the City enforced the ordinances that we have now, we would not have camping in the parks.  But we would also be having to explain our actions to HUD, putting our federal homeless assistance grants at risk, and potentially defending our actions in a big, federal lawsuit.  Maybe the Mayor forgot the advice Jerry Moore gave her last August, that "we're not going to arrest our way out of this", and what she's been told about the harm-reduction model of policing used by the Downtown Enforcement Team.  One thing's clear, though, she's not happy about the situation.  Nobody is.   

The campers under the High Street Bridge a couple of weeks ago were the constituents of Councilor Tom Anderson, who had sought to have them removed when neighbors complained through social media.  There ensued a lengthy conversation, pasted below in its entirety, with the exception of one comment that wasn't expanded all the way.


Two things stand out about this conversation: 1) at least some Salem residents see their neighbors' sleeping under bridges as a piece of a much larger problem, and 2) they're prepared to act, but all they can or know to do are little things.  Even when they combine efforts, they most often aim small, letting people sleep in their church, or on their porches, or handing out toiletries or food, or providing chemical toilets and trash service. 
Some of the Illicit Camps in Salem

But such actions, while satisfying to the parties to the transactions, don't address the problem.  Maybe the last comment is right, that the Salem Homeless Coalition knows what is needed and where, but all they're working on at the moment is a proposal to permit a sanctioned camping program in Salem, along the lines of the one in Eugene.  HUD doesn't count these programs as providing shelter, though, and for good reason.   

Nevertheless, that's how a group named Home Base Shelters of Salem (HBSS) is billing their proposed camp, as "safe and legal temporary shelter", according to the draft letter to the City Council shared at the August meeting of the Salem Homeless Coalition.  They're saying their program "will begin solving the problem of illegal, undesirable camps" that so concern the Mayor and others in Salem.  Maybe HBSS believes their program will have that effect, but it sounds to us more like sales talk and wishful thinking.
According to HBSS, Salem residents are living in tents because they "typically cannot secure temporary shelter elsewhere, in part because existing temporary shelters in the city are filled to capacity and frequently overcrowded."  But is UGM filled to capacity and frequently overcrowded?  It's not in August.  So why are Salem residents living in tents?  The answer is complicated, which means, among other things, a sanctioned camping program might not be the best answer to "the problem of illegal, undesirable camps."  HBSS should just admit this, and try to make their case despite that fact.

HBSS's draft letter states, "Salem has an acute need for additional temporary shelter"?  But, is that true?  HBSS says that Salem has "[o]ver 500 individuals without adequate shelter", but they don't say where that figure comes from*, and they don't estimate how many are in camps, or how many in the camps are likely to be interested in participating in a program like the one HBSS is proposing, which a) does not provide shelter or showers, and b) includes a long list of rules and restrictions, including no drugs, alcohol, paraphernalia, or firearms, no tolerance of theft or violence, adherence to a schedule, and service expectations.  Just the sort of rules and restrictions that UGM has, and that people live in tents in the woods to avoid.   

Which is not to say that there are not some in the woods who would prefer the structure and support of the HBSS program.  Let's just assume, for the sake of discussion, that there are.  Then the relevant question, and the one HBSS should be prepared to make to Council at some point, is whether HBSS can demonstrate a) that it has the expertise, donors and volunteers it needs to succeed, and b) that they have satisfied the reasonable concerns of neighbors about the program.  Unfortunately, that's what's missing from the current HBSS proposal.  Here's what they're asking:
HBSS requests that the City Council direct staff to develop a plan to implement the pilot project.  The plan would seek to conclude work necessary to permit construction to begin before January 1, 2017, and would include reports to the Council at each meeting on the staff's progress in implementing the project.  Staff would work to (1) locate one or more potential sites for camps; (2) work with HBSS to adjust project details to meet City concerns; (3) write an ordinance or resolution adopting the project; (4) apply for permits and licenses necessary to establish the camp; (5) make modifications, waivers, or variances of building, zoning or other codes necessary to facilitate the project; and (6) develop an agreement with HBSS for camp management.  
With the exception of item (1), the request strikes us as premature, and rather presumptuous.  The Council could reasonably be asked to pull a list of potential sites, on which HBSS could then conduct due diligence, talking to the neighbors, area campers, etc., after which, HBSS might make refinements to their proposal and return to Council with something more specific.  As it is now, it's as if a developer had come to Council seeking a conditional use permit for a yet-to-be-selected site.  Not only would the Council have to deny the developer the permit, they'd have cause to wonder about his or her competence.  That's a message HBSS should seek to avoid sending.

The HBSS Board consists of Delana Beaton (President and former director of the Salem Outreach Shelter), Pamella Watson (Vice-President and Chair of the Homeless Outreach Committee of the First Congregational UCC), Verena Wessel (Vice-President and Task Force member, formerly with NWHS), Maya Close (Secretary and First Congregational UCC), Kathleen Thorpe (Treasurer and First Congregational UCC), Susie D'Anna (First Congregational UCC), Ken Houghton (MWVCAA ARCHES Program), Jon Reeves (MWVCAA Director and Task Force member), Susan Smith (First Congregational UCC and Willamette University Law School), Linda Strike (MWVCAA ARCHES Program).

For two years in a row, First Congregational UCC has hosted an overnight cold-weather shelter in an uneasy partnership with MWVCAA, so it's interesting that they're giving it another go with a much more ambitious project like HBSS.  Last year, FCUCC installed a chemical toilet in their parking lot and ran a program they called their "sleeping ministry" that allowed people to sleep on their porches.  The program was reluctantly discontinued because of problems with theft and drug use by those not in the program.

*As discussed in another blog, the 2016 PIT Count of unsheltered individuals in both Marion and Polk Counties was 215.  Providers generally maintain that the "true" number is two or three times the PIT Count, so let's say the number of unsheltered in both counties is roughly between 200 and 600.  And let's say, based on common sense and UGM's census figures that the number of unsheltered is lower in winter and higher in summer.  This would put HBSS's claim of 500 in Salem alone on the high side in summer, and on the extremely high side in winter.

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