With more than a decade of experience leading twice-a-month outreach teams and running local warming centers, Christopher Hutton knows more about the homeless people living in and around Roseburg than just about anybody else in town.
So when Hutton told members of the city’s recently formed homeless commission last week that it would take a month to set up a warming center even if a location was secured immediately, they listened. They also listened to officials from the county health department, who said housing upwards of 80 individuals in a confined space would have the potential to contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the homeless commission held a special meeting — just eight days after its inaugural one — to discuss what the members had learned and what to do about it. They decided to switch gears and instead of scouring the region for a location to house an emergency cold weather shelter as planned, focus on helping the homeless shelter in place.
That means scuttling plans for a warming center and instead provide as many tents, sleeping bags, blankets, food and other items to help the homeless survive the winter.
“We will meet the unhoused where they are,” homeless commission member Shelley Briggs Loosley said before the meeting.
Or, as Hutton put it before the meeting: “Providing assistance where people live is better than opening a shelter for one night under COVID-19 restrictions. However, those people need supplies to stay warm and dry as they get damaged or stolen. Low-cost camping equipment is not meant to withstand constant use in the environments that they live in.”
Much of Tuesday’s 30-minute Zoom meeting focused on housekeeping matters, such as how members should communicate without violating public meeting laws, where to store sleeping bags and how to set up a fund that citizens can donate to for area cleanups.
City Recorder Amy Sowa said the city is working with a vendor to replace port-a-potties and hand washing stations that had been inadvertently removed at Stewart, Gaddis, Templin and Fir Grove parks as well as the duck pond.
Currently, there is no place in the city specifically dedicated as a shelter the homeless can go to get out of the freezing, wet weather. Hutton and the Roseburg Dream Center had been running a warming center over the years. But the agency moved on short notice last summer, and with COVID-19 restrictions in place, does not have the room to manage a center in its new location.
Dream Center director Tim Edmondson said he told city officials back in September that it would be unlikely he would be able to operate a warming center this winter due to COVID-19 restrictions, and the lack of time and resources needed to run such a shelter.
The city was hoping an outside agency, such as a church, would step up and fill the void, but so far none has.
TOUGH TIMESThe lack of a place to go during freezing temperatures presents a serious danger to the hundreds of homeless people in the area. A January 2020 survey found 845 people in the county who were identified as unhoused, including 183 under the age of 18, but those numbers are considered low. The survey for this year was canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus.
At least six homeless individuals in the area died last year, including a 67-year-old man who was found deceased in a tent near the duck pond on Dec. 28. Two more homeless people were found dead in January, including the body of a 37-year-old woman that was seen floating in the South Umpqua River near Gaddis Park on Jan. 25.
It is unclear what part, if any, the inclement weather had in their deaths.
The 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 entailed setting up a homeless commission, whose main tasks would be working to open a warming center this winter and a long-term, low-barrier shelter in the future.
In November, the City Council approved a pilot program that would allow people to sleep in their vehicles at approved sites in the city, in what is known as vehicle camping.
The program comes with nearly two dozen rules and regulations, including the requirement that the property owner register with the city, limit the hours of operation, provide restrooms and garbage cans, have someone at the site overnight to keep an eye on things, and make sure the site remains clean and complies with noise restrictions.
So far, no one has applied to operate a vehicle camping site.
In mid-December, the city council eased the rules regulating warming centers in the hope that a church or agency would be able to provide such a shelter
So far, no one has applied to operate a warming center, either.
Despite those setbacks and the prospect of no warming center this winter, Hutton said he is determined to do what it takes to help the homeless survive and elevate their situations. He also said he, and the Dream Center, can’t do it alone.
“It will take a community effort with multiple agencies, groups and organizations to provide the level of assistance needed to get people off the river banks and into more permanent housing,” he said. “That permanent housing may need to be outdoor living for some, as some can’t cope with indoor environments. But we can do better than muddy river banks without access to restrooms, clean water, showers or trash pickup services.”