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.”