Homeless facility a ‘success’

Benny Westcott

The new Family Assistance and Resource Center’s managed outreach and community resource facility was declared a success during a March 9 Community Health Committee meeting.

“Ever since [it] got up and running and everyone moved over from old City Hall, it’s been phenomenal,” Sweet Home Police Department Chief Jason Ogden said.

“We still respond to calls here and there, but it’s almost completely gone away.”

Statistics support that. In the monthlong period between Dec. 14 and Jan. 13 before the facility opened on Jan. 14, 17 calls were made to the police regarding the congregation of homeless people at the old City Hall, resulting in two arrests. But at the FAC site east of Bi-Mart, those numbers fell to three calls and a single arrest between Jan. 14 and Feb. 23.

According to committee member Larry Horton, Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District Chief Nick Tyler also reported a reduction in calls.

“FAC has been a great success,” City Manager Kelcey Young said. “The low-barrier shelter seems to be going really well.”

Horton said that the facility’s clients help keep it clean and work on completing its onsite huts. He also reported that its residents now have personalized managed plans.

“Some of our more colorful ones are writing goals down and pursuing things,” Community Services Officer Sean Morgan added. “I’m very optimistic about things. If we keep this program going, I think we can make some real changes. I’ve seen changes and growth in people that is amazing. It’s the beginning of the journey for some of them. They’re stepping down the path, and I think it might get easier over time.

“But the whole thing’s never going to be easy,” he cautioned. “So having that support there maybe makes it easier for them to continue.”

Horton mentioned one community member who was initially opposed to the facility but now serves on FAC’s committee in town and considers the effort worthwhile. He quoted this individual effusing at a previous facility committee meeting, “I’m a convert. I was adamantly opposed to this coming to our community, and now it has made a difference. I believe that it works. I’ve been over there; I’ve seen it. And it is doing everything that you said it would do.”

Horton also shared that 29 of the 41 clients the facility has thus far served have lived in Sweet Home the longest over the last year. Five have lived in Lebanon the longest during that period, three in Albany, two in another part of Oregon, and two in California. Some 16 clients have lived in town for more than two years, four for 1 to 2 years, eight for 6 to 12 months, nine for 1 to 6 months, and three for less than a month.

“Very few of the clients come from any place other than Sweet Home,” he said. “I think that’s an important point to make to anyone who wants to listen. Because that was probably the biggest fear when we held the meetings [on a potential homeless facility] over [a] two-year period was that we were going to be inundated with outsiders. And the numbers don’t show that.

“When we were spending two years talking with the community about the homeless facility, over and over and over again we had people complaining that we’re going to be inundated with people from all over the world,” he continued. “The numbers indicate that there is a connection with Sweet Home by most of the clients. They may have lived here in the past. They may have relatives who live here. They may have gone to high school here and come back looking for their high school years.”

Horton shared other facility-provided figures. The shelter has, since Jan. 14, served 797 bed nights for 41 clients, with a median age of 46. Some 58% of its clientele has been male, 42% female. Most have self-identified as white (88%) while others are Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, multiracial (all 5%) or Native American (2%). Half have reported to have been domestic-violence victims. Others have suffered severe disabilities or alcohol/drug addiction (41%) or mental illness (35%). About 15% are veterans. Others are on supplemental security income (24%) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) (22%). Roughly 85% are covered by the Oregon Health Plan.

He said that four or five individuals have already transitioned into permanent housing.

“That’s a big step for the homeless in our community,” he said.

Horton recounted the community’s many contributions, recalling a day when 104 individuals helped build huts.

In February, the Sweet Home Rotary Club advertised a blanket drive, an effort it discontinued because of too many donations.

“There wasn’t room to store them,” Horton said. “There were probably 75 to 100 blankets donated in two weeks. And if you think about the cold that we’ve had over the last month, those blankets probably made a difference. If the homeless had been out on the street during the weather that we’ve had, I would bet we could have had some very seriously ill people. One lady brought in 30 Pendleton blankets. You know how much a Pendleton blanket costs? These were brand new!”

He added that the club bought 30 rods, which now await curtains from the Sweet Home Senior Center sewing club, and that Fir Lawn Lutheran Church congregation members made 30 quilts.

“I know that the community had some real doubts two-and-a-half to three years ago,” Horton said, “but hopefully people are starting to see that their worries were for naught, and that this is a good thing.”

In other meeting business:

— Young said that despite progress, local homelessness still faces challenges, particularly with families and children.

She said the city recently met with the Sweet Home School District to discuss the number of families and children who don’t have any type of home, particularly in the aftermath of a recently passed ordinance restricting recreational vehicles from “camping” in public rights-of-way for long periods of time.

“Unintentionally, by moving some of the RVs and so forth, we have some children who are now off the map even further, and they’re living in vans and other places, in driveways and back lots,” Young said. “In some ways they are in a worse position than before we made some of these initiatives.”

She said that Linn County representatives have agreed to partner with the city on ideas for both family and children’s shelters.

“We are also going to look at partnering with some of the shelters that are already available in Albany and other places to be more aware of where there are openings for children and families,” Young added. “It’s going to be another long process, because this has been an ongoing issue for a while.

“I’m not quite sure what the future is going to hold here, but what’s good is we’re going to have a lot more conversations,” she continued. “We’re going to be talking with DHS (Oregon Department of Human Services) and discussing with some other agencies on a larger scale about how we can start mitigating this and solving this.”

— Young also discussed aesthetic improvements.

“There’s been a lot of work done on cleaning up the town and making it look nicer,” she said.

She noted that the city is working on a Saturday market in May in the parking lot across from the Sweet Home Public Library, as well as looking at some green spaces next to the old City Hall and transforming the building into an artisan workspace.

“We’re bringing it back to the community,” she said.