Exclusion talk attracts attention, feedback from homeless advocates

Sean C. Morgan

When she heard about Sweet Home’s proposed exclusion ordinance, Diane D. Nilan decided to stop in Sweet Home to talk to local homeless advocates, a street outreach team, and take a look at the local homeless situation.

Nilan has been traveling cross country, between Newport and Boston, Mass., and along Interstate 20, from Texas to Georgia documenting the lives of the homeless and their communities with Hear Us, a nonprofit dedicated to giving a voice and visibility to homeless children and families, a project called 2020 VisionQuest.

Along the way, she has been interviewing families and youth, conducting presentations and meeting with lawmakers.

Nilan met a group of advocates in Sweet Home last month. The group gets together in different communities and reaches out to homeless persons, providing supplies and help accessing resources. That particular day, the group included Tera Dixson, Albany school district homeless liaison; Scott McKee of Community Services Consortium and Shirley Byrd of the Family Assistance and Resource Center.

Nilan films a lot of documentaries on the homeless, she said, focusing on youth and schools.

On her trip across the country, “I’ve been filming, interviewing,” she said. “I’ve done some presentations and talked to local leaders and national leaders.”

She is trying to get a bill, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, passed in Washington, D.C. to change the definition of youth homelessness. At this point, she said, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not recognize as homeless children who are “double bunked,” those who share homes with other families.

That means they cannot get assistance in obtaining housing, she said.

HUD does not serve people who are literally homeless or those in jeopardy of becoming homeless, McKee said. For those who are doubled up, the homeless must have a written eviction notice before they can obtain assistance from HUD.

When people are staying at a location, the last thing they want to do is ask for an eviction notice, he said.

Congress doesn’t have a clue as to the extent of homelessness, Nilan said.

Point-in-time counts put the number at 500,000, McKee said, adding that’s extremely inaccurate, because it fails to include anyone who is doubled up in a household.

Nilan said that homeless living in motels do not count as homeless.

Material from Nilan’s organization said estimates range upward of 6 million for children who have no homes. Congress receives underestimated reports, which leads to inadequate resources.

Nilan said she planned to move on to I-20 after stopping in Albany, Corvallis and Newport in October. She started her trip at her home in Illinois, moving east to Boston. She returned to Illinois and headed west for Newport.

Nilan said she became connected with Sweet Home when she filmed here about three years ago. She was in the area and returned when she learned “there was a movement to cleanse the downtown area of people not considered worthy of being downtown.”

She was referencing a proposed city ordinance that will allow police officers to issue an “exclusion” or “expulsion” notice to individuals who are cited or arrested for a variety of violations and crimes for 30 days initially and 90 days on subsequent expulsions.

While under a notice, the individuals would not be allowed to enter the downtown area except under certain exemptions, with a variance that must be granted by the police chief or municipal judge. If the exclusion is violated, it would be considered criminal trespassing.

The offenses listed in the ordinance range from urinating in public to theft and murder.

“We have the Constitution,” Nilan said, and the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, the courts have ruled that if someone has no place to go, they cannot be arrested for being in public spaces.

Nilan said she ran a shelter and knows what it’s like to deal with a wide range of people.

“You really can” manage and help people and the community at the same time, she said. “You don’t need a scapegoat to make Sweet Home a sweeter place to be.

“You have to look at each person. You have to have a relationship. They have to trust you, that you’re not going to be mean to them.”

Give them a pair of socks, Nilan said, and go from there.

One of Sweet Home’s women living on the street needs a shot twice a month, McKee said. Because she has mental issues, she cannot even remember that she needs the shot. When she does remember or is reminded, she’s not allowed to use the bus system because she cannot take all of her stuff with her on the bus.

Recently, the woman was in luck when the Salvation Army was out with McKee and his group. The Salvation Army had a van and took her to Albany to get her shot.

That’s the kind of work the street outreach team is trying to do, McKee said. The group reaches out to individuals who don’t trust resource providers everywhere from the old City Hall and downtown to the parks. The group tries to address the immediate needs, with water, socks and substantive food the homeless can use, and then a connection to resources that can help the homeless.

“The thing that strikes me, this is such a small population we’re talking about,” Nilan said of Sweet Home. “It’s a manageable size. It just behooves the community to make life work for people instead of making life hell for people.”

Rather, get them to become productive and reach a point of sustainability, McKee added. At that point, they no longer want to be downtown, wet and begging, or going to the soup kitchen.

“I’m a better person because my neighbors are stronger,” McKee said. When his example homeless woman is able to get her medication, Sweet Home is that much better for the next couple of weeks.

“Nobody chooses to be homeless,” he said.

“The things people forget, nobody grows up and wants to be homeless,” Nilan said, but a lot of the seeds are planted while children are in school.

As a school district, Sweet Home goes above and beyond to help prevent that with its district homeless liaison, clothing program and food pack program, McKee said.

It goes beyond that, Nilan said noting that a homeless pregnant woman was being “harassed” recently for being in a park.

The police issued her a citation in September in Sankey Park after the outreach group made contact with her, Nilan said. She doesn’t know the circumstances of the woman’s life, but “if you value life, you’ll value the life of that baby. If you don’t take care of prenatal and afterbirth, as babies, we are again planting the seeds for dysfunction.”

McKee said he hasn’t seen or heard from her since then.

In Sweet Home, there isn’t shelter, nor a daytime drop-in center, available for male adults or male children who are too old, McKee said, adding that one of his first times homeless was as a child.

His mother was a victim of domestic abuse, but he couldn’t go to the Hope Center with her. She had a choice, to be on the street with all of her children or to take his brother and sister to the Hope Center with her, leaving McKee on the street.

“You’re in survival mode,” McKee said. “You’re worried about your homeless 12-year-old, just to check in. That’s the reality of homelessness in Sweet Home.”

It’s a perpetual cycle, he said.

Sweet Home could find solutions, he said. Sweet Home has an empty rehabilitation center, the old Avamere Twin Oaks building, which was used for people recovering from physical injuries and illnesses.

“It seems simple that if you just give them someplace to go,” Byrd said, it helps the downtown business community. It can make the homeless more productive and connect them to resources they need to eventually live sustainably.

In other communities with daytime drop-in centers, they hang out there during the day, McKee said, but the problem is large in other communities. Corvallis has 60 beds in a homeless shelter while the last point-in-time count showed 267 homeless persons.

“There’s mental illness,” Nilan said. “There’s health issues. There’s economics. The community should be responsible for having ways to help people (or prevent homelessness in the first place).”

“Stop viewing it as us-versus-them,” McKee said. He suggested caring about the homeless the same way the community cares about those who are suddenly tragically ill or injured, when the community comes together and raises thousands of dollars for an individual and family.

Why not go to the same extent to support the homeless, Byrd asked. “Why don’t we see them as part of us?”

To see Nilan’s work, visit Hear Us on Facebook at HearUs2020VisionQuest or visit hearus.us on the web.