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Local nonprofits work to end homelessness by providing housing

As the political debate rages on over how best to address Roseburg’s homeless crisis, a few local nonprofit organizations have been quietly plugging along, doing what they could to build programs that pull homeless people off the streets and into their own apartments.

A majority of local homeless people queried during Roseburg’s 2019 point-in-time homeless count said what they most needed was help finding a place to live and paying for it.

Over the past few decades, the Housing Authority of Douglas County and the United Community Action Network have been Douglas County’s major players in the effort to supply permanent housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

HADCO operates 323 rental units around the county and administers 762 federally funded housing vouchers.

The vouchers are popular because they’re a form of rental assistance that’s mobile — not tied to any particular housing complex, HADCO Director Janeal Kohler said. For those able to get them, they will pay the rent at any apartment.

There’s just one catch. There’s a waiting list, and the people on it wait a year to two years before they receive a voucher.

Kohler said the list is operated on a first-come, first-served basis. It doesn’t try to distinguish who’s more deserving — the family with children about to lose their home, the veteran, the disabled person or the person who’s already on the streets.

In an average year, Kohler said HADCO provides about $3 million in housing assistance to local families.

UCAN operates 93 housing units around the county. Shortly before his retirement last month, outgoing director Mike Fieldman said some focus on specific target groups, such as people previously incarcerated. Others are open to all. UCAN also operates a food bank and many other programs that benefit low income residents.

Like HADCO, the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers housing vouchers, but they’re exclusively given to veterans. A story on that program will appear later this week.

NeighborWorks operates Eagle Landing on the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus, which provides housing for homeless veterans. But for the most part, rather than focusing on the homeless, NeighborWorks targets low to middle income households. It offers 600 affordable rental units and helps people in financial crisis keep their homes.

That work likely plays a critical role in preventing an increase in the homeless population.

A homelessness study incorporated into the Housing Needs Analysis recently adopted by the city of Roseburg suggested a significant portion of Roseburg’s population is at risk, with 3,379 households paying more than 30% of their income on rent and more than half of those households having annual incomes below $20,000.

Housing First Umpqua co-founder Betsy Cunningham said people with higher incomes who lose their homes can pay for an alternative, such as staying in a motel. But those making very little are likely to wind up on the street unless someone steps in to help them.

There’s general agreement among the leaders of these organizations that some prevalent community attitudes toward the homeless, from judging them to ignoring them are not effective.

Kohler said it’s important to to look at what’s worked in other places and use the data from those successes to figure out the best approach for Douglas County.

“Ignoring the problem or making it difficult for the homeless I think has proven ineffective,” she said.

Kohler said she would like to see everyone working together to pool resources effectively, and that means city and county government need to be involved, she said.

“It’s a hard road, but what other choice do we have but to walk it? So we can easily say what has not worked. So what’s the harm in trying something new?” Kohler said.

Kohler said many county residents have false ideas about the homeless, for example that most are transients that someone shipped to us on a Greyhound bus.

“That’s just not true. If you look at the data that is out there, most of the individuals are born and raised in this area and they are community members right beside us,” she said.

Cunningham favors a housing first approach, under which a homeless person is given a roof and four walls, without preconditions like addiction treatment or employment. Housing first projects in Seattle, Utah and New York, where the approach was initiated by an organization called Pathways to Housing in 1992, have claimed success in using this model.

Cunningham said that approach allows a homeless person to become stable before trying to address his or her other problems.

“The housing first model isn’t saying we’ll get them housed and we’ll never even do anything about it. It is trying to stabilize them, get them to the point that they start being willing to accept help. It’s still always offering help, but it’s not imposing it on them,” she said.

Fieldman said traditionally housing first offers wraparound services with 24/7 support.

“The research had shown that to be extremely successful. I’ve been able to visit some of the early housing first models in the Seattle area, and it’s quite impressive the successes that they have had with that model. But it’s also a very expensive model to operate,” Fieldman said.

Duplicating such a program in Roseburg would be a big challenge, he said, because the costs would have to be spread across a smaller group of people.

“It’s harder to pull off in a rural area. But the need is just as strong, and the results I think would be just as successful. It would just be a little more costly to do it,” he said.

UCAN doesn’t have the resources to do what Seattle did. So its version of housing first is a more general concept, Fieldman said. The goal is still to get people into housing without first requiring something, such as sobriety, as a precondition. And it still means using case managers to get services to residents once they’re housed.

Fieldman believes the key to solving the homeless crisis is to stop judging the homeless and start doing what’s necessary to solve the problem. Nobody wants to be homeless, he said.

“If you ask them what do you want to be when you grow up, I don’t think you’re ever going to find a kid who’s going to say I want to grow up to be homeless,” he said. “It’s not something anybody ever strives to be.”

Woman speaks out after City Councilor Ashley Hicks blames family for man's homelessness following death

When Christy James-Beck and her family learned of her brother-in-law’s death this past February, they were distraught, she said.

Jon Beck, 40, struggled with addiction and was a member of Roseburg’s homeless community for at least eight years before his death, James-Beck said.

“He was really smart, he went to Wyoming (Technical Institute) for a while, you know, something we all wished he would have followed through. He was a good mechanic,” James-Beck said. “He was kind, he would have done anything for you.”

She said the sadness came after years of worrying that such a call from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office might come.

The day of Jon’s death, James-Beck had barely started to grieve before becoming outraged at a Facebook post by Roseburg City Councilor Ashley Hicks. Hicks is outspoken about homelessness issues. She frequently characterizes the city’s unsheltered people as undeserving of services.

Local nonprofits work to end homelessness by providing housing

As the political debate rages on over how best to address Roseburg’s homeless crisis, a few local nonprofit organizations have been quietly plugging along, doing what they could to build programs that pull homeless people off the streets and into their own apartments.

When James-Beck confronted Hicks about the offensive post on Facebook, an argument in which Hicks blamed James-Beck’s family for Jon’s homelessness followed. James-Beck said Hicks’ comments show she lacks the compassion to be in a leadership position at the city making policies directed at homeless people.

In an interview, Hicks said she stands by her statements that James-Beck’s family is partially to blame for allowing him to stay homeless for so many years.

She organizes cleanups in Roseburg’s public parks and other natural areas that are often campsites for unsheltered people, and she posts on Facebook about the cleanups.

“This morning one of the chronic campers was found dead,” read part of a Facebook post following a cleanup by the South Umpqua River the day Jon was found dead.

The post included a description of what Jon looked like when he was found. James-Beck said it was difficult to read.

“I’m thinking it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we found out at 10 o’clock this morning,” she said. “If my husband got on here and saw this, he would absolutely melt down. I mean, there’s no way that his kids needed to get on there and go to their dad’s Facebook page and have that be the first thing that popped up. Nobody needed to know how he was found dead. We still didn’t, the sheriff still hadn’t even told us.”

James-Beck responded to Hicks on Facebook after getting approval from other family members.

“Ashley Hicks thank you so much for such a very vivid detail of how my husbands brother was found dead, probably something he and his family could have lived today without having to read, the great detail of how he looked at death has nothing to do with your clean up day, please have consideration for his family,” James-Beck wrote.

Hicks responded by saying James-Beck should have seen the conditions in which Jon lived. James-Beck said she and her family have known his living conditions for a long time.

Jon’s family was continuously in contact with him during his homelessness, James-Beck said. She and her husband would occasionally talk to him when they saw him in town. They couldn’t have him stay in their house after his addiction posed a risk to their kids.

Jon went home to his parents’ house in the Tri-Cities, Washington, area for three weeks every year over Christmas. He was clean when he went home, James-Beck said, and he hoped it would persist.

“He generally called his mom at least once a week,” James-Beck said. “She bought him multiple phones. If she couldn’t get a hold of him she had someone that would go down there, and then he would call.”

After several more exchanges in which Hicks continued to challenge James-Beck’s awareness of Jon’s living situation, Hicks said, “You knew where he was — his death is yours to deal with. Nothing along the riverbanks changes after his passing. Not many were even sad about it — you can think on that tonight too. I knew him. I just spoke with him last weekend. When was the last time you some with him? You’re wasting your time here.”

Meanwhile, several people on Facebook came to James-Beck’s defense, denouncing Hicks’ statements as hurtful. Hicks got more defensive throughout the discussion, continuing to blame Jon’s family for his homelessness.

“The shame is on his family for allowing a beloved to live in that condition — I welcome you to come down tomorrow to where he died today and take it in,” Hicks replied to one person who criticized her.

James-Beck said Jon’s parents considered writing a letter to the City of Roseburg to bring city officials’ attention to Hicks’ actions.

“I don’t understand why an official could ever on public social media be able to speak to anybody or on the death of anybody before people are even barely notified,” James-Beck said.

City councilors have discussed creating a social media policy following posts about separate issues on Facebook by Hicks, according to email records.

James-Beck said it was unfair of Hicks to assume that her family hadn’t tried to get Jon help with his addiction.

She said he went through at least three different rehab treatments, and his parents played crucial roles in facilitating those efforts. They would drive more than six hours from Tri-Cities to pick him up and take him to treatment centers in Portland.

She isn’t sure why Jon’s periods of sobriety were never permanent because she knows there were times when he seemed committed to it.

“Everything needs to be connected,” she said. “You need to have more treatment centers that connect to mental health facilities that connect with housing. If you don’t have all three of those that connect ... you’re going to fall right back into where you were.”

James-Beck was also offended by Hicks’ suggestion that Jon’s family didn’t care enough about him. Jon meant a lot to James-Beck, she said. He introduced her and her husband. They worked at a restaurant together before Jon’s addiction took hold.

“Never a perfect person, nobody is,” she said. “But losing a child is losing a child, and it’s still losing a brother.”

Living on a bench: Man who calls himself Elliot believes he's watching out for us all

The man who introduced himself as Elliot Ness sat on a bench in front of Roseburg City Hall in a blue raincoat on a pleasant October day.

He spends most of his days on this bench, rain or shine, and some of his nights. It seems he’s been doing that for much of the past decade.

Elliot’s shoulders slumped and most of his face was hidden under a hood. When he peered out, he revealed a graying beard, blue eyes and crooked teeth.

Elliot seemed friendly and didn’t mind sharing his bench.

He told a reporter he is originally from Los Angeles, which he believes is also known as Heaven. He believes that he is the police chief in Heaven, as well as here. This place, he said, is called Forever.

Elliot thinks Forever is a pretty nice town. People bring him food, he said. There was an empty paper bag from Little Caesar’s next to him as evidence of that. And he believes — perhaps from experience — that they will bring him a winter coat when he needs it, too.

MSullivan / MICHAEL SULLIVAN/The News-Review  

Koree Tate, a management assistant with the City of Roseburg, speaks with a man that goes by the name Elliot Ness in front of City Hall in Roseburg on Oct. 9. For much of the past decade, Ness has spent most of his days and nights on the bench in front of City Hall all year around, through all types of weather.

He was out on his bench when most Roseburg residents were huddled indoors following February’s major snowstorm, and he told reporters even then that he was alright.

Elliot may not remember that. On the first Tuesday of October, the world according to Elliot was just eight days old.

“This is as old as anybody is. We’re still starting history out,” he said.

Others might consider Elliot to be homeless, but he does not see it that way. In Elliot’s mind, he is on a mission of some kind, and the bench is an OK place where he can sit and carry it out.

“We look for missing people. I specialize in homicide,” he said.

So that’s what the world looks like to Elliot, or at least what it looked like to him on that day.

What does Elliot look like to the world?

Well, for starters, there’s the name.

Elliot is known to Roseburg police and city staff by his legal name, which is Jeffrey Short.

Short, 64, has frequented the bench in front of City Hall for the past decade, said Koree Tate, who has been a management assistant in the City Administration Office for 12 years.

Tate said Short is always friendly, and she’s never seen him drunk. He never begs, never asks for anything at all. Maybe that’s why a whole group of people frequently bring him food and other supplies.

Sometimes he leaves his bench at night, but he has been spotted there at all hours.

He used to spend time at Stewart Park too, but he doesn’t anymore. He told Tate there were bad people there.

Short has experienced various realities, according to Tate, but the belief that he is some sort of police chief and that he is here, on his bench, because he is protecting the rest of us has been a common theme.

Neither the police nor the homeless advocates we contacted know Short’s background or whether he has family in the area. The News-Review called every person with the last name Short in the phone book and no one who responded to those calls knew him.

Dream Center Director Tim Edmondson said Short often comes in on days they’re serving food. He always signs in as Elliot Ness. Edmondson said Short also comes into the warming center when it is open during the coldest nights of the year.

He said he didn’t know anything more about him.

“He’s never been a problem for us. He just comes in and eats and he doesn’t stay very long. He eats and goes. He probably has to get back to his bench,” Edmondson said.

Local nonprofits work to end homelessness by providing housing

As the political debate rages on over how best to address Roseburg’s homeless crisis, a few local nonprofit organizations have been quietly plugging along, doing what they could to build programs that pull homeless people off the streets and into their own apartments.

United Community Action Network Homeless Outreach Coordinator Larry Clark said he’s repeatedly offered services to Short, who he only knew as Elliot Ness.

“He would never take anything from me. He would take a sandwich or something from me, like if I gave him food, but I could never get him to come down and get socks or any clothing or anything like that,” he said.

Clark said it’s very rare for homeless guys to turn down the supplies he offers, like coats, shoes, hand warmers, hygiene kits and flashlights.

“I can’t even think of any other ones that have done that,” he said.

If Short would accept his help, he’d be able to try to figure out if he has any family or income like social security. He might be able to get him peer support and get him housed.

The police only know he’s been picked up and jailed repeatedly on suspicion of second-degree criminal trespass and contempt of court, as well as for a warrant out of Benton County. The News-Review found nothing in the state’s court records indicating he’s ever been convicted of a crime.

The contempt charges were likely due to Short’s inability to show up in court. How does a person with no concept of time honor a court date, after all?

Roseburg Police Sgt. Jeff Eichenbusch said he doesn’t know anything about Short’s life story. Eichenbusch said he wasn’t sure what the trespass charges were based on, but he did not believe they were related to his time sitting on the bench.

“He’s often difficult to interact with because he often refers to himself as ‘the Mayor, the Chief, Errol Flynn, etc.,’” Eichenbusch said in an email.

MSullivan / MICHAEL SULLIVAN/The News-Review  

A man that goes by the name Elliot Ness sits on a bench in front of City Hall in Roseburg on June 29. For much of the past decade, Ness has spent most of his days and nights on the bench year round through all types of weather.

Certainly his names are colorful. If they sound familiar, it might be because the real Elliot Ness was a Bureau of Prohibition agent who helped bring down gangster Al Capone, and the real Errol Flynn was an actor who played Robin Hood in the 1938 movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

Even if Short is experiencing hallucinations or mental confusion, he can’t be forced to receive treatment. Nor can he be locked up based solely on his mental illness, so long as he is not a threat to himself or others.

Nothing in his criminal record or his interactions with The News-Review or anyone else we spoke to suggests that he would be a threat to anyone.

The police receive crisis training on how to handle situations involving the mentally ill, but they aren’t mental health experts, Eichenbusch said.

They’re also involved with the new Mobile Crisis Team, which provides mental health assistance when police are working with people who appear to be mentally ill.

Darlene Brooks, with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Douglas County Mental Health Court, said as a community we rely too much on the police to handle situations like Short’s.

“The Roseburg City Police are fabulous, they’re wonderful and I have a great deal of respect for them, but I think we lean on them too much to manage treatment issues,” Brooks said.

People with severe mental illnesses need treatment and care, she said, not jail time.

“I think when we arrest them and put them in jail all we’re doing is exacerbating an already unmanageable situation, making it tough for the jail, making it tough for the Sheriff’s Department in Roseburg because they’re the people there manning the jail and they’re not psychiatrists,” she said.

Instead, the mentally ill person needs a psychiatrist and often psychiatric medication, she said.

“We don’t make the mentally ill seek treatment and provide for their care in a loving, respectful, decent manner where if a person was in a diabetic coma there would be many crisis people around,” Brooks said.

For Short, or as he knows himself, Elliot, the world is a much simpler place than it seems to the reporter and the city staff, the advocates, the mental health providers and the police who are concerned about him.

He is there on his bench outside City Hall because that’s where he believes he needs to be in order to accomplish his mission.

“I’m a happy person. I’m OK with it right here,” he said.

Roseburg City Councilors deviate from research on how to address homelessness

In the decade Philip Baca and his wife, Rebecca, have been unsheltered, they have filled out close to 80 apartment applications each, he said.

“It’s a $30, $35 or $40 application fee per adult,” Philip Baca said. “When you’re paying application fee after application fee and you still don’t get approved, you’re wasting your money constantly. It gets frustrating. My wife has gotten to the point where she feels like giving up on searching for a place.”

His application denials are primarily a result of his extensive criminal background, he said. A second-degree rape conviction in 2003 led to six years in prison, after which his homelessness began.

According to Roseburg’s recently completed Housing Needs Analysis, Roseburg lacks sufficient housing at all income levels, but particularly for low-income households. A homeless population study of Roseburg included in the analysis states that because of insufficient low-income housing, the process is competitive and renters deny applicants with blemishes on their records such as Baca.

Barriers to housing are the most significant issues facing unsheltered people in Roseburg, according to the homeless population study, which was largely based on a recent point-in-time count — a federally mandated annual assessment of homelessness.

Roseburg city councilors’ statements, however, show they are at odds with a growing body of research and local data shows the best way for policymakers to address homelessness is removing barriers to housing.

Researchers say it’s important for communities to provide addiction and mental illness services because those issues make it difficult to house people. But they add it’s counterproductive to say those issues are the primary cause of homelessness.

The addiction-focused narrative in the city leaves people like Philip Baca out of the conversation when people like him make up the majority of Roseburg’s homeless population, according to the homeless population study.

At a recent City Council meeting, a resident frustrated by homeless campers near her property urged officials to do more to address homelessness. Such comments are frequent during the audience participation period.

Multiple councilors responded by framing the issue in terms of addiction.

“This is an addiction problem, this is not a homeless problem,” said City Council President Tom Ryan. “In my opinion, for somebody on drugs sitting under a bridge or down on a riverbank, it’s more compassionate to either let them bottom out and try to cure their addiction, but get to the root cause, no one’s helping these people by giving them something.”

City Councilor Brian Prawitz echoed Ryan’s comments by saying, “We are aware of addiction being the target here and not necessarily homelessness.”

A few months earlier in a video posted to his city councilor Facebook page, Prawitz said he was impacted by “Seattle Is Dying” — an hour-long TV special by KOMO that discusses homelessness in Seattle.

“It so clearly illustrates how much of an addiction problem, or how much addiction affects homelessness and is the root cause of homelessness,” Prawitz said about the TV special while looking into the camera.

Since it was released this spring, “Seattle is Dying” has been criticized for inaccurately characterizing Robert Champagne’s experience with homelessness in Seattle. Champagne was featured heavily in the film.

Marisa Zapata is the director of the Homelessness and Outreach Action Collaborative, a research center at Portland State University that focuses on using data to address the causes of homelessness.

She said one of the focuses of the center is to research how rhetoric and attitudes about homelessness affect how it’s addressed. Zapata said it’s misguided to characterize addiction as the root cause of homelessness, and doing so can harm efforts to address the issue.

“It’s also a way to remove it from yourself,” Zapata said about policymakers.

Zapata is a proponent of the housing first model of addressing homelessness, which recommends homelessness is best addressed when policy-makers build avenues for people to acquire housing.

“If you look at the psychology underpinning housing first, it’s really based on (Maslow’s) hierarchy of needs,” Zapata said. “We’re asking a lot for people to really try to become unaddicted or to manage an addiction if they don’t have a place to live.”

Zapata said she tries to have people imagine the time in their lives when they were the most tired they’ve ever been.

“Like the least sleep they’ve ever gotten, and then imagine that sleep was on a sidewalk or was in an alley where people kicked you. You’re not really set up to succeed in those circumstances.”

Zapata said unsheltered people often start using drugs after they become homeless.

“There’s some good research coming out of San Francisco saying that once they become housed, the addiction actually resolved pretty quickly,” she said.

Baca says his drug use while homeless was largely a way to cope with depression and his homelessness, not the cause of it.

He is part of a rare group of people who have been able to manage their addiction while being homeless. He said he has been drug-free for three years and alcohol-free for eight years.

“A lot of people don’t want to think about how an unstable lifestyle affects a person’s mentality,” Philip Baca said. “They think that because somebody’s homeless, they’re choosing to be that way.”

Although 10% of the 260 homeless people in the point-in-time count said they were homeless by choice, the top three reasons people said they were homeless were housing-related. The top factor, at 36%, was that rent is unaffordable.

Baca is a prominent member of Roseburg’s homeless population. He frequently volunteers at local homeless service providers and he says he’s often asked for help by other unsheltered people with resources such as food.

In December, he spoke out against the city electing to expand Roseburg’s Enhanced Law Enforcement Area at a City Council meeting.

The area, also known as the “exclusion zone,” prohibits people who have been cited three or more times for crimes such as assault, drinking in public and disorderly conduct from entering the zone for 180 days.

Baca objected because the expanded zone included Umpqua Low-Cost Veterinary Services. He said including the vet in the exclusion zone would deter unsheltered people from seeking care for sick pets.

Unsheltered people in Roseburg want housing, Baca said.

“The majority of people who are homeless aren’t there because they choose to be,” he said.

Baca said when city councilors say homelessness in Roseburg is primarily an addiction problem, it leaves out people like him.

Zapata says couching the issue as an addiction problem leaves out large numbers of people who are “doubled up” (living with friends or family) or people who are at risk of losing their housing. Both populations were highlighted as substantial issues for Roseburg in the recent study.

Local nonprofits work to end homelessness by providing housing

As the political debate rages on over how best to address Roseburg’s homeless crisis, a few local nonprofit organizations have been quietly plugging along, doing what they could to build programs that pull homeless people off the streets and into their own apartments.

Prawitz says when he talks about homelessness in terms of an addiction problem, he’s talking about people who are visible because they’re publicly disruptive and require frequent police action.

But nearly all of the City Council’s discussions about homelessness focus on the disruptive segment of the homeless population, not on the unseen majority of people looking for housing.

The wider community inaccurately generalizes Roseburg’s homeless population by equating everyone with the small disruptive group, according to the homeless population study.

“Due to this perception, much of the city’s approach to homelessness focuses on trying to mitigate its impact on the community rather than trying to help people to end their homelessness,” the study said.

Community Development Director Stuart Cowie says creating the conditions necessary to bring in more low-income housing is a top priority. He added city councilors’ addiction-centric approach to addressing homelessness doesn’t hinder his ability to create those conditions.

While homelessness didn’t come up on Aug. 26 when the City Council adopted the Housing Needs Analysis in the city’s comprehensive plan, the analysis includes several policy recommendations directed at using housing to address homelessness.

More than 40 policy recommendations in the analysis directed at housing deficiencies at all income levels will have to be voted on by the City Council individually.