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Much needed to help homeless people in Roseburg, Medford group says

Show empathy. Provide emergency shelter. Keep hope alive.

Those were just three of a laundry list of suggestions presented to homeless commission members Monday by a Medford nonprofit agency hired to help Roseburg address people without housing in the region.

Matthew Vorderstrasse, development director for Rogue Retreat, said his group talked to city officials and community leaders, and visited a half-dozen homeless encampments in the city, talking to more than 50 homeless individuals.

Vorderstrasse said among the homeless people he spoke to was a woman who had been living in an encampment for three days after fleeing domestic violence. Vorderstrasse said there is often a misconception that those who are homeless are lazy, which isn’t true.

“In order for them to get their feet back under them, they need access to basic amenities,” he said. “She had nowhere to go, so she packed a tent and put it in a park.”

Roseburg officials visited Rogue Retreat operations last summer and were impressed by what they saw. The program includes a step housing system that includes a camp, a shelter and a village of tiny homes. Roseburg officials hope to bring some of those services here, starting with a one-stop shelter and service center. The city appears to be in line for $1.5 million in state funding to get such a center off the ground.

The city contracted with Rogue Retreat to lend its expertise here, beginning with an assessment of what services are in place now and what is needed to help those struggling with homelessness. On Monday, Vorderstrasse and executive director Chad McComas presented their findings to a homeless commission set up by Roseburg city officials.

A partial list of what is needed to help the homeless people here, according to the two, include:

  • More housing for victims of domestic violence
  • The creation of a low barrier shelter
  • The creation of extreme weather shelters
  • The creation of a youth shelter
  • Housing for homeless Umpqua Community College students
  • Bathrooms, trash cans, showers and laundry facilities for the homeless
  • More medical outreach
  • Open pet-friendly shelters

Most important of all is to generate a sense of hope, Vorderstrasse said.

“Hope is the biggest need,” he said. “You can take all sorts of steps and never get anywhere when you are homeless. Losing hope is their biggest threat.”

Vorderstrasse and McComas also said it is going to take a unified, collaborative, integrated approach to truly help the homeless population here — what they called “collective engagement.” Currently there appears to be some vexation between various homeless advocacy groups and city officials, and some “political controversy over the right path forward,” Vorderstrasse said.

“There is a lot of hurt that is in the community and building positive relationships with each other will start the healing process,” Vorderstrasse said.

ROUGH GOINGThe Roseburg City Council has made the issue of homelessness a top priority and spent much of 2020 holding special workshops to discuss the matter and come up with plans to address it. One of those plans called for setting up the homeless commission.

The commission got off to a rough start even before its first meeting. There were complaints leveled over how its members were chosen; they were picked by Mayor Larry Rich, with no opportunity for the general public to apply or participate in the selection process.

At its first meeting in January, the commission announced that its immediate priority was setting up a warming center so homeless individuals would have somewhere to go when the temperatures dipped below freezing.

“We want to do what we can to get this warming center up and running as quickly as possible,” Rich said at the time.

But eight days later, the commission called a special meeting and declared that the push to open a warming center was off, and the focus instead would be on helping the homeless shelter in place. Commission members said they had learned that setting up a warming center would take too long and present health concerns due to COVID-19.

Other efforts to help by the city have also been ineffective.

In November, the City Council approved a pilot program allowing people to sleep in their vehicles at approved sites in the city, in what is known as vehicle camping. The program came with nearly two dozen rules and regulations, including requiring the property owner to register with the city, limit the hours of operation, provide restrooms and garbage cans and keep someone at the site overnight.

To date, not a single church or agency has applied to operate a vehicle camping site.

In December, the City Council changed the rules regulating warming centers in the hope that a church or agency would provide such a shelter. None did.

A January 2020 survey found 845 people in the county who were identified as homeless, including 183 under the age of 18. At least five homeless individuals in the area died last year, and three more homeless people were found dead in January.

“This is humanitarian work,” Vorderstrasse told the homeless commission members Monday, in stressing the need for empathy.

“These are humans.”

Roseburg, Douglas County grapple with landfill issues

The situation at the Douglas County Landfill is a bit of a mess, and by all accounts, the situation is only going to get worse, particularly when it comes to the cost of disposing of trash there.

Take Roseburg for example. Under the current set of contracts and agreements, trash collected within Roseburg city limits is hauled out to the county landfill, and it’s not cheap — at $94 a ton, it’s more than triple what some other landfills in the state charge.

So the Roseburg City Council on Monday took initial steps to allow Roseburg Disposal Co., which contracts with the city to handle the trash, to be allowed to take the waste to another site. But there’s a catch: Roseburg Disposal will have to pay the county $15 for each load it hauls to another landfill, and those and other added costs are being passed on to city residents.

“The current ordinance says they have to take it to the landfill, they have no other option. So this gives them another option to take it somewhere else,” City Manager Nikki Messenger said of the proposed change. “I wish we could go back in time a little and have some choices made differently, but we are where we are now.”

The landfill is slowly getting close to being full, which raises a host of issues and concerns, said Scott Adams, public works director for Douglas County. Estimates on how much longer the landfill has to operate range from eight to 12 years, he said. Also, landfills can continue to operate, sometimes for decades, past the date they are considered full, he said.

But the county has to put money aside for closure and post-closure costs associated with the landfill, he said, which is the reason for the high costs of accepting trash there and the new fee for taking trash elsewhere, known as an export fee.

For 70 years or so the county allowed Roseburg and other places to dump waste at the landfill free of charge, Adams said, and only began charging a fee about six years ago. Now the county is in the position of playing catch-up, both in terms of raising funds and extending the life of the landfill, he said. The situation is so dire that the county itself will likely begin taking trash to other landfills in a year or two, Adams said.

“Most waste at the landfill came from the city, and for 60 years it was free,” he said.

City Councilor Brian Prawitz agreed that the reason rates are so high now and going up is because the city paid nothing for its waste for so long. The proposed changes are necessary, he said.

“I see this as protecting the Roseburg landfill and the contribution the city has made to garbage in it,” he said.

City Councilor Bob Cotterell, however, opposed the proposed change, calling it unfair to Roseburg Disposal.

“Charging someone for not using a service doesn’t sit right with me,” he said. “I just can’t support that.”

By a show of thumbs, the council approved the proposed changes on first reading. A final discussion and vote will come at a later meeting.

Umpqua Community College buys building for student housing with help of donors

Umpqua Community College voted to purchase the old Casa de Belen building on 1199 NE Grandview Drive in Roseburg for student housing during a special meeting Monday.

“We’ve been leasing the property we all know as Casa de Belen as housing for students, primarily student-athletes,” President Debra Thatcher said. “That facility has been for sale and the board has agreed to a fair purchase price of $400,000.”

Money to purchase the building will come from donations, not the community college’s general budget.

The goal is to house 40 students at the facility, according to Athletic Director Craig Jackson.

It is the first off-campus student housing complex purchased by the community college. The school is leasing a building in downtown Roseburg for student housing as well.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to increase enrollment,” Jackson said. “Affordable student housing is always a challenge. Anytime we can find a solution that will help students, we will investigate it.”

Sports programs offered at Umpqua Community College have increased in the past five years. Students in those programs have added to the enrollment at the college, as well as the county’s economy and volunteer service base. All student-athletes are required to participate in community service.

“UCC’s student-athletes are valuable to our community,” Thatcher said. “Not only do these students provide many hours of service to the community, they also provide opportunities for the community to enjoy sports.”

The motion to purchase the property was approved by five of the school board members. David Littlejohn was excused from the meeting and Steve Loosley abstained from voting and removed himself from the meeting, due to a conflict of interest.

Loosley’s wife, Shelley Briggs Loosley, was the board chair of Casa de Belen at the time of its closing in October 2020 and was actively involved in the sale of the property.

After 16 years of providing shelter to homeless and at-risk youth, the doors to Casa de Belen closed in June 2020. The organization had hoped to stop services temporarily while looking for additional funding, as it had done once before, but was unable to secure the funding to reopen. The shelter had struggled financially for several years.

The property had been listed on real estate websites for more than $1 million.

Umpqua Community College spokesperson Tiffany Coleman said the college does not foresee any major construction projects at the site but will evaluate as the sale moves forward. The sale is expected to be finalized in May.