Homelessness in community poses lots of questions, no easy answers

Sean C. Morgan

Homelessness remains an issue throughout the Sweet Home area.

During the summer, national forestland is crowded with homeless campers. The School District continues to have one of the highest homeless rates among larger districts around the state. Sweet Home Emergency Ministries reports a growing number of homeless.

Based on 2016-17 data, Sweet Home had 237 homeless students. That figure includes those who may be couch surfing, multiple families sharing a single housing unit and students who are sleeping in cars, tents or on the streets.

Of those students, eight were considered “unsheltered,” and 22 were unaccompanied by a parent. Ten of them were living in a motel room, and 214 were doubled up in a housing unit. Eight of them were pre-kindergarten.

Statewide, 3.9 percent of students, 22,541, were considered homeless, lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education. That’s a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year and a 19.2 percent increase since 2014.

“Definitely, the trend has been that we’re seeing many more households come in, all age groups,” said Cindy Rice, food pantry manager at Sweet Home Emergency Ministries. They’re young and old, with and without children. “I’m thinking we actually saw 22 households identified as homeless (last month).”

Again, those numbers include families who are doubled up, couch surfing or living on the street, in a tent, a car or campground.

SHEM’s primary mission is to provide food to low-income families; it gives food boxes to each client family once a month.

“We first started noticing this trend maybe two years ago,” Rice said. “And we started tracking that data. We’re also getting new families that are coming in for the first time.”

On the flip side, she has seen a number of families find a way to make it on their own, Rice said.

Rice said SHEM’s biggest client family has 21 members – eight adults and 13 children – all in one household.

“We’re seeing multi-generational (families),” she said. “We’re seeing several families combining to make it.”

The Forest Service is experiencing problems too.

“We’ve had to close some sites I wish we didn’t have to close,” Sweet Home District Ranger Nikki Swanson said. “We’ve had more numbers. I don’t know if it’s because other places have closed their camping.”

For example, camping has been banned along the lower part of the Quartzville Corridor on lands owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Forest Service has banned camping in the Moose Creek area, primarily because of the trash that is left behind by the campers.

They stay in motor homes and tents, Swanson said. “We have a 14-day stay limit. That’s not really helpful for people.”

She said she grew up poor. She wasn’t homeless, but she understands and empathizes with the homeless.

But some of the campers have a big impact, she said. A lot of the impact is a large amount of household garbage along with bathroom waste.

She suggested they should try to bag it and dispose of it.

“A lot of dispersed sites have this problem,” Swanson said. Some campers clean up some of the mess, but the Forest Service cannot keep up with what’s left.

The forest has fewer numbers right now, Swanson said, but during the summer, it gets a lot busier.

Police Chief Jeff Lynn sees a less pessimistic picture although he cannot quantify homelessness in Sweet Home.

“We don’t keep numbers on them,” Lynn said. “Some that you’re seeing around here have been around for a number of years.”

It’s anecdotal, but those who visibly homeless and living on the streets in town “seems consistent,” he said. He hasn’t noticed a large uptick in related calls.

He noted that one RV was moving around the downtown area last year, and it would draw multiple complaints. While code enforcement often responds to reports of people living in RVs, he cannot think of any moving around like that on city streets right now.

Homeless persons continue to camp in wooded, secluded areas, Lynn said. One is in the area between Circle K, 2405 Main St., and Bethel Lutheran, 2590 Long St.

“Much of the problem is just the extreme mess that’s been left behind,” Lynn said, those homeless are “absolutely destroying it.”

And it falls to the property owners to clean up the mess, he said.

Answers are scarce.

Homelessness is not the real issue, said City Manager Ray Towry said last week. It is caused by other issues.

The big causes of it are addiction, mental illness and poverty are the three biggest causes of homelessness, he said.

SHEM volunteers see people turn to substance abuse – alcohol and drugs – to cope with these high-stress situations, Rice said. That creates more problems.

“It’s like a big snowball that keeps going and going,” Rice said. “People are making some really inappropriate decisions instead of trying to logically think it through. They’re in a place that doesn’t allow them that.”

In addition, “we have a significant population with mental health issues,” Rice said.

“America is the land of plenty,” Rice said. It has plenty of resources – “we are spoiled.”

Dig a little deeper, “and you see the lacks,” she said, hungry kids trying to go to school, parents working but not making enough to take care of their families.

Whatever the story though, SHEM’s mission is to ensure that those in need can eat, she said, and its volunteer staff does it with a deep level of compassion and without judgment.

“I don’t know what the answer is other than my job is to do what I can do,” Rice said. “To make sure that we don’t allow our people in the community to go hungry.”

“We always offer them bus passe to the closest warming shelter, homeless shelter,” Lynn said. “We just have no resources here for them.”

Very few of them take advantage of the resources when they’re offered, Lynn said.

One Sweet Home resident stopped by The New Era office last week to promote one idea she has to help the homeless.

Margie Coulter walked in the door with a rolled up foam mat, a remnant of used foam, she purchased from the Foam Man in Corvallis. She plans to give it to a homeless man, to help make him more comfortable.

“I can only get one right now,” Coulter said, but she suggested others may want to help. “If we can buy four, then we can get a discount on these remnants.”

A second 10-percent discount is available to seniors for a total of 20 percent off, said Coulter, who also helps out at Fair Share Gleaners.

She got interested in helping the homeless after attending a Manna Meal – which is organized by SHEM – at the Sweet Home United Methodist Church, located at the intersection of 6th and Ironwood streets.

“They like you to go there and socialize,” Coulter said, and it’s open to anyone.

She met a homeless man there, she said.

“He said he was so cold. He lives in a tent in Foster somewhere. He’s about 37. He could be my son. I can’t help everybody, but I can help one.

“We don’t know that we won’t be in this position some day. Maybe I can’t help a whole lot but maybe a little. I just wanted to share this idea with you. Would anybody else want to do this, to make people more comfortable in their tents? We need to come together as a community and do something.”