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.”

Scott Carroll can be reached at scarroll@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4204. Or follow him on Twitter @scottcarroll15.

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(10) comments

NJ

"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."

All that work holding workshops to address "the matter" and the only vision was to establish a commission to work on setting up a warming shelter? Admit it. The Homeless Commission spent a year with blinders on focusing only on a warming center they were told wouldn't happen. There is a serious lack of community service knowledge, experience, even imagination. Their work would have been better spent recruiting those who could actually address "the matter" and turning it over completely. Then their only responsibility would be to receive updates on an actual "homeless action group", and they would only have to spend mere moments on "the matter".

Thank you Amy Sowa for looking into the inadvertent (meaning accidental) removal of fixtures that provide some meager form of normalcy to the homeless.

Did anyone on the Homeless Commission look into Federal Grants? They're out there, Google Keywords - Federal Funding for Homelessness Programs. "The Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate will soon begin crafting bills for this and other spending accounts for FY 2021." Now would be a great time for the Homeless Commission to contact DeFazio, Wyden, and Merkley to push for more funding with the appropriation bills. Surely, someone on the Homeless Commission has experience writing a grant...? Get the funding, get the support of our Congress members, get the people who can actually address homelessness recruited and get them busy with a thorough plan of action.

Mike

Roseburg City Council doesn't want to pursue grants to address this issue. That would require commercial property owners to accept homeless solutions they fear will depress their property values. Expecting solution behavior from a commission with a "delay" agenda is not logical. Homelessness was Mayor Rich's "top priority" ten years ago. That changed. Now its a top priority to make it appear as if it is a top priority.

smb

The commission had not spent a year doing anything. It literally first met less than 2 weeks ago. I imagine there are some expirienced grant writing people on the commission, but less than 2 weeks is not much time to get to know each other let alone write a grant.

Grants that involve multiple agencies are a challenge too, figuring out how funds will be accounted for, dispersed, etc. Sounds like the commission got tossed in the deep end of a lake and told to swim to shore.

I wish them luck.

NJ

I agree, but part of the Federal grant application process is presenting how the entity would report its accounting of funds. The Federal Grant application process is tricky but there are people who do know how to write a presentation that passes muster. Most likely not in this community, but our Federal Reps and Senators are a resource for tapping into one. The bigger issue would be how both the City and County have no intention of doing anything that would save the lives of the homeless.

Mike

Many if not most Federal Grants require the city/county/state provide matching funding to qualify. Cities/counties/states often don't advertise they had to supply matching funding of tax payer's money when they announce receiving a a "free money" grant for fear people may not feel it is not a wise use of taxpayer's money. Few realize "free money" grants also come from tax payers. Nothing's free.

BetsyC

Housing First Umpqua started working with Christopher and others to try to address the problem of people living outside with no adequate sheltering before the Homeless Commission first met. Why? Because those of us who know what is going on are those helping folks who are living outside and we knew a Warming Center was not happening this year. Unfortunately, they were none of the folks seated at the table and allowed to talk.

HFU started working with UCAN to get survival supplies to those living rough.

We are also working to pull together all agencies, organizations and people who really want to help people who are living outside and address the problems we have because so many do. This includes people who want to do and are doing cleanups humanely. HFU's weekly homeless outreach meeting this coming Tuesday will focus on this.

Our hope is that by taxpayer funded agencies and members of the community, plus a few pain in the rear advocates, working together, we can really make a dent in the problems of homelessness in our community.

Although this meeting is not a public meeting, the plan we come up with will be. Plus anyone who is currently, even on their own, helping homeless, contact Housing First Umpqua if you are interested in attending.

NJ

[thumbup] I knew there was more dedication to this issue than what was currently happening. Thank you Betsy.

mynamehere

I'm sorry but how many vacant buildings in Roseburg equipped with running water, toilets and electrical power are being used for housing the homeless? NONE!

BetsyC

That is absolutely right. The city's only effort to help folks who are homeless has been taking over the payment for the three porta potties that are downtown. Last I was aware was less than a $1000 a month for all three.

However even that was not about helping the homeless, but about stopping human poop from literally ending up on doorsteps of businesses downtown.

Mike

Kickin the can down the road......again.....and again.....and again.

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