Feb. 13, 2019 — “Last year we would pick up a dozen people or more with the van,” Pastor Greg Wood said. “The four nights we’ve been open this year, I think we’ve picked up two people. Three people is about the biggest night.”
It was Monday, Feb. 4, at 5:30 p.m. It was 36 degrees at the moment and would dip to 30 by midnight. Wood, who is the president of the Florence Emergency Cold Weather Shelter, was driving around Florence, picking up homeless guests from various locations to bring to the Presbyterian Church of the Siuslaw for a warm meal and the chance to spend the night out of the bitter cold.
But on Monday, Wood was having difficulty finding people. The Fred Meyer pickup station, which usually brings in people walking from the north, was empty. So too were the Siuslaw Public Library and Safeway pickup locations. Wood ended his drive without any takers.
“I just don’t think there’s as many people living out there right now,” he said. “I could be mistaken about that. There just doesn’t seem to be the same number of people living on the streets.”
Is the homeless population in the Siuslaw decreasing? The fact is, no one really knows. The search for the answer to this pressing question brings up a whole host of issues when it comes to helping the homeless — The difficulty of tracking the population, federal versus local laws, difficulties with promoting services, perceived prejudices against the homeless community and the current state of housing.
While the conversation begins with an inquiry surrounding numbers, it ends with a debate on what the future of homelessness in the region will become.
By the numbers
One of the major problems facing those who work to alleviate the issue of homelessness is finding exact numbers, as demonstrated by the Lane County Point in Time Count, which looks to create a count of unsheltered individuals in rural and urban areas.
The county has just finished the 2019 count and is still working on the data — set to be released in May — but staff was able to provide 2018’s numbers for the Siuslaw region: one sheltered homeless and 22 unsheltered.
“But I will caution you that it is all volunteer-based, as far as how many surveys we get back,” said Human Services Supervisor Alexandria Dreher at Lane County Health and Human Services. “The Point in Time count is a snapshot, and the best snapshot we can get. It’s only a small picture of homelessness.”
As to why the count is not more robust, Dreher said, “Sometimes the people trust government. If they’re homeless, and they’re in a crisis and not interested in completing a survey, or they don’t trust the system, it’s not worth it to give information.”
The county has only begun reporting region-specific numbers in 2018, so Dreher was unable to see if there was a downward trend in the Siuslaw’s homelessness by press time.
“But I do know that between 2017 and 2018, all across Lane County we saw a seven percent increase in unsheltered homelessness, and that’s a trend across the West Coast,” she said.
To get numbers specific to the Siuslaw region, Siuslaw News turned to Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) in Florence, which focuses on a wide variety of long- and short-term help for the homeless.
“I wouldn’t say our numbers are dwindling, but they did go down,” SOS Executive Director Bob Teter said. “We had catalogued 936 clients that came through our doors [in 2017]. It’s down this past year to 716.”
The 24 percent decrease SOS is seeing is small compared to the Cold Weather Shelter. 2017 saw a steady population of guests, with nightly averages running 17 people spending the night and between 20 and 25 meals served.
But the first shelter night of 2018 saw just a handful of people. At the time, Wood said that it was still early in the season and it was possible that the word was having a hard time getting out. But since then, “I think there’s eight or nine people at the church right now,” Wood said as he was driving to the different pick up locations last Monday. “Most of them walked there.”
Overall, Wood is seeing decreases of up to 50 percent in guests served a night.
Florence Police Commander John Pitcher said, “I’m surprised by that, to tell you the truth. I see on my off-duty and on-duty time about the same. I’ve not seen a reduction in people panhandling. We’ve seen people traveling through and move on and we have some that are here year-round. I have not noticed a decline. It’s hard to count those numbers and identify if there’s less or more.”
The Helping Hands Coalition, which provides free meals to anyone in need periodically throughout the week, is also seeing a steady rate of clients, serving approximately 39 guests per day during the winter months. During the summer, the average climbs to 60 per day.
“In the winter time it always slows down,” said Glen Stewart, director of Helping Hands. “In the summertime, we have a lot of travelers, hitchhikers and hikers that come through town. Somehow they find us and come in for a meal.”
Stewart reported the year to year numbers being the same, but Florence Food Share, which is located next to the New Life Lutheran Church where Helping Hands serves, has seen an increase in clients.
“I looked at a six-month period from July to December, and we had actually served more than 160 people in 2018 than we had for the same sixth month period in 2017,” Florence Food Share Interim Director Ed Monks said. “So, the demand for the service was up.”
However, it should be noted that the majority of clients for both Helping Hands and Florence Food Share are not homeless — they just need support to get through the month.
Overall, the numbers these organizations are seeing are as diverse as the theories as to why the numbers are fluctuating.
“I really don’t know what’s going on, it’s hard to say,” Teter said. “The reasons for homelessness are so vast. It’s really hard to characterize it in one group. I think there’s a little bit of improvement in the economy that’s helping, but we still have a housing problem.”
In his recent State of the City speech, Florence Mayor Joe Henry laid out some of the numbers on the current state of housing:
“We did 48 housing units in 2018; I would personally like to see us do a minimum of 100 housing units in 2019. From our recent housing analysis, we need somewhere between 200 and 500 units, so this should get us well on our way toward that goal.”
Meanwhile, local nonprofits are hitting the issue head on. Programs like First Step are looking to install interim housing in the community, while others are looking to build auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) in town for those currently in need of homes, and for the expected wave of construction workers that will help build up the community in the coming years.
State wide, on Feb. 11, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced the launch of a five-year statewide housing plan to tackle homelessness and housing, with a stated goal of increasing Oregon Housing and Community Services-funded housing development in rural areas by 75 percent.
There are countless other state, county and local agencies working on alleviating the current housing problems, but many are just getting off the ground. It will be a few years until a real dent is made in housing, and Teter did not believe that any decreases in the homeless population is due to any current trend.
However, people could still be finding alternative ways to find housing in the interim.
“We do hear more people doubling up,” Teter said. “More are taking people into their homes, friends and things. That may factor into it.”
At Helping Hands, Stewart has been hearing multiple stories following this possibility, saying “This one guy, he said that he had been sleeping in the woods for 15 years. He was good with it because he was out there, and nobody was bothering him. He could have his time with God and was happy with it. But he got a new vision, sharing a new house with someone, and he hasn’t come in for food because he moved into that house.”
Wood echoed the sentiments, saying, “I think there’s a real stable homeless population where they may be couch surfing or living in some other way. And they’re working.”
However, the organizations we spoke with were hesitant to say that’s been the magic bullet for the possible decrease in homelessness. There could be other factors, such as getting the word out to people about their services.
The Cold Weather Shelter does all it can to get the word out when it opens, including social media, radio, newspaper and word of mouth.
“There’s the chamber of commerce, other churches, the library,” Don Koddas, the program’s night manager said. “I think there needs to be more outlets to let people know who are passing through or homeless that this exists. I don’t think a lot of people know because it’s so sporadic: Just when it freezes up, they put the word out.”
Visibility can be a real concern for these types of organizations. In the past, Helping Hands was having difficulty getting the word out about its services, as its previous locations were just off Highway 101. It wasn’t until Helping Hands was able to get a permanent spot next to food share that its numbers stabilized.
“Some of those people come in that didn’t come in before,” Stewart said. “They go over, get a box of food, then come over to us for a hot meal. I think that some of the people that followed us from our other locations to where we are, they’ll go to food share, where they possibly weren’t before. That might be one reason why their numbers are up, but I don’t know.”
He also posited that one of the reasons places like the Cold Weather Shelter are seeing declines may be due to people being afraid to leave their current camping positions.
“They try and stay out of sight,” he said. “These poor people, they’re camping in the woods and they don’t build a fire because they’re afraid someone will see the smoke. I really feel for them. If they’re by themselves, which a lot of them are, they’re afraid to leave their camp. Someone could come in and destroy it or steal it. Some of them will get a buddy, with one going into camp and the other going into town and buy some groceries or whatever, but leaving the spot for one night to stay warm in the cold weather could end up making them lose everything.”
Stewart said he is also seeing some more worrying trends. He talked about three women helped last December, two of which had cars and one who was living in a trailer she could move around.
He knew the location of one of the women, but, “One of the gals has disappeared, so I don’t know where she’s gone. The gal with the trailer has just vanished, too. … People migrate around. The gal with the trailer is a bit disconcerting. She was older and had been in Florence for at least two years. I just don’t really know what happened to them.”
Camping and codes
Wood did have another theory about the possible decline.
“I think they migrated to Eugene,” he said. “There seems to be more resources in Eugene. I don’t really know. Some are going up and down the coast. I think from talking to folks, it’s getting harder for people to be homeless here in Florence.”
Some of that feeling may have to do with a code that was passed last year which in the public created a stir, but in practice has done very little.
In September 2018, the Florence City Council unanimously passed a code that amended nuisance laws in the city.
The original code, drafted in 1977, read, “No person shall lodge in a car, outbuilding or other place not intended for that purpose.” However, tents and RVs are intended for the purpose of lodging, therefore were not considered illegal.
Two years ago, the Florence Municipal Court judge identified the problem with the tent definition, “So, our code enforcement and police officers hadn’t handed out any of those citations all during that time,” Pitcher said.
They were working on a new draft covering both public and private lands, but then just weeks before they were to submit it to the city council, such laws were blocked by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on public property when they have no access to shelter violated the constitution and was deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
“That had to change the city ordinance completely,” Pitcher said. “We took out the public part entirely, and it was just about private property.”
The result of the ever-evolving legal status, Pitcher stated, is that Florence Police haven’t issued an unlawful lodging citation in years.
“Now, we do address other issues that might be happening, littering and those type of things,” he said. “If we see a problem or we get complaints, we address them. We’re not citing anyone for lodging, but we will cite for other things if it’s called for.”
And guests at the shelter said they try to avoid camping on private property. While they found it difficult sometimes knowing where public and private lands end, they tried to avoid the private property because not only could it incur a camping fine, but trespassing violations as well.
Are the police more aggressive with public fines?
“I wouldn’t say we’ve been ramping up on that,” Pitcher said. “If there’s an issue we need to address, we do. That’s been our stance for quite some time.”
The local department does receive multiple monthly calls for “illegal camping/lodging,” but some of the issues can be taken care of with a simple conversation.
“If we go somewhere where someone isn’t doing anything wrong, nothing illegal or violation of city ordinances, then we don’t do anything,” Pitcher said. “It matters what they’re doing. If it’s a matter of city ordinance, then they get citations. If it’s a criminal offense, then they could get arrested or give citations. It matters what the situation is. If it’s something we can handle and not have to take them to jail and it won’t happen again, then we’re not going to take them to jail.”
The guests at the shelter did not talk of any crackdown or aggressive ticketing either, stating that the Florence Police could be strict, but also fair and deserving of respect.
Wood believes that there could be other factors in encouraging the homeless population to leave.
“I think the businesses are pushing people away,” he said, referencing a specific business that he heard had banned multiple individuals.
“The only thing I can talk about is that we have a no loitering policy at the front of our store,” a representative told the Siuslaw News.
“And rightly so,” Wood said, acknowledging that some public problems do occur. “I have some sympathy for that.”
But Wood also pointed out that while there is a large swell of support for the homeless in the community, there are also a fair share of vocal detractors that may have left the population feeling unwelcomed and forced out.
“People may have seen the writing on the wall and moved on,” he said.
The debate over the place of homeless people in the Siuslaw region has been raging for decades, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
Last week, the Siuslaw News printed a two-part series on interviews with the homeless, posting a link on Facebook. Denise Weatherwax-Ebner wrote the following on our Facebook page:
“Thank you for doing this. There are so many people in this town who look down upon the homeless. Like they are dirty or beneath the rest of us. Both of my grandmothers where considered ‘lower class’ by each of their husbands’ (my grandfathers) families. Growing up, they both drilled into my head that no one is BETTER than anyone else in this world. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ (sic)”
The majority of the comments posted on Facebook shared the similar sentiments. On the Let’s Talk, Florence Oregon Facebook page, Melanie McKinzie Petersen didn’t disagree with Weatherwax-Ebner’s statements, but did offer some concerns.
“My neighbor would have had help from other neighbors. We have a great town. We have a wonderful police department and first responders. We also are supporting transients in one way or the other. Let them be transients. Give our police department a break. They have to spend way too much time on many of the same people over and over. Let them move on to where there are facilities for them and larger agencies for them. Your neighbors are being robbed, your child’s bike may have been stolen. Our agencies are maxed out. Please do not give them cash. Do not allow the transients make the mistake of thinking this is a safe haven. I cannot afford to support them. Please help the truly homeless, there are felons and misdemeanors hiding here as well. Just be careful. (sic)”
In September, the city released information on the cost of clean-up of illegal camping. The annual expenses for these incidents totaled $10,650 for Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue and $19,500 for Western Lane Ambulance District. For Florence Code Enforcement and the Florence Police Department, expenses have ranged from $50 to $400 per callout and as much as $4,997 per site cleanup for Florence Public Works.
That’s a problem that even some of the guests of the Cold Weather Shelter saw.
“If you pack it in, you pack it out,” a guest named Hobbit said. “You mean to tell me that you can carry a 12-pack of beer and some hamburgers out there, and you can’t bring them cans and trash back? Please.”
“And you’re conscientious. I am too,” James, another guest at the shelter said. “A lot of people aren’t, and that’s what people have a problem with.”
As for the time the police department invests in the population, Pitcher said, “There’s definitely some calls with homeless people that create a lot of time for us. There’s a portion of that population that is a criminal element. Not all, but there’s a portion. That portion definitely takes up a lot of time.”
He listed drugs, alcohol, trespassing and vandalism as frequent issues, most of which are misdemeanors, which limits what the police can do to prevent problems.
“If it’s staying at the misdemeanor level, which the majority of the crimes are, they’re not going to see prison,” he said. “They’re going to see jail time here, but not prison. We don’t see felonies being repeated over and over again. It’s the misdemeanors that are getting repeated over and over again.”
Pitcher said that it’s easy to see why a minority of homeless individuals can give the impression that the entire population is dangerous.
“When you’re in law enforcement, and you go through a lot of calls, you start to wonder if it’s everybody, but it’s not,” he said. “We’re dealing with the same few people over and over again. It comes down to individuals. It doesn’t matter if they’re homeless or not. If you have a certain population, whether it’s bikers, homeless or whatever, if you have a group in that population that are causing problems, those are the people that you worry about. Most people who ride bikes are good people. But there’s one percent that’s not. Those are the people that cause most of the issues. With the homeless population, the ones who are involved in the criminal element do present something to worry about. But the other part of the population, they’re not causing problems.”
While the majority of the homeless do not cause severe problems in the community, some believe that merely having homeless in the community is a blight. The general public may be supportive of those who lost housing due to current housing problems and are just trying to get by, the more chronic homeless are continually looked on with fear — such as the travelers on Highway 101 and those who come from Eugene looking for a more temperate climate.
“We don’t want to become another Eugene” is a common refrain when it comes to the homeless population, and it’s one many of the homeless themselves don’t want.
“Scary place,” James said when talking about Eugene. “There’s all the same problems as there is everywhere, there’s homelessness and crime. And you don’t know anybody. You don’t know your way around and that kind of thing. You don’t have any money, and you don’t know anybody. And you’re lost, you know? You don’t know what your next turn is going to be. It can be an adventure, I guess, if you have that kind of spirit. But me, it scares me. You’re homeless, jobless and penniless.”
The guests, one of which had been in Florence for 10 years, wanted exactly what many of the local residents do — A quiet place they feel comfortable in. They may not have a shelter, but they still call Florence home.
While the numbers may be smaller at the Cold Weather Shelter, “The need is still there,” SOS’s Teter said. “It’s definitely supplying an emergency need in the community. The last thing we need is for people to get frostbite, or even death. Hypothermia is an issue here because it’s wet.”
Wood would like to see services expanded in the region. If given the chance, he would want the shelter to be open any time it’s under 40 degrees, but the program lacks resources to handle that at this time. To expand to that temperature, a new structure would have to be found, along with funding and more support from local volunteers.
But Wood also would like to see more comprehensive solutions as well.
“I would love to see someplace that would serve as a day shelter, but also as a drop-in center that would also get people to find work,” he said.
But such plans may involve a broader discussion in the community. Does the region want to become a safe place for the homeless, embracing its place on the Highway 101 corridor? Or is that even needed? If the population is in fact decreasing for whatever reason, perhaps the goal should be to continue what’s being done. The question then is, what are we aiming for? Zero homelessness in the region? If not, who gets to stay, who gets to go, and who decides?
Basically, what’s the answer to homelessness?
“I wish I had the answer to that,” Pitcher said. “A lot of places are dealing with the problems surrounding homelessness. I just don’t have that answer. I don’t know.”
Full interviews with Hobbit and James can be found under the Special Series Archive (link here), under the titles "Homeless — In their own words".
Florence Cold Weather Shelter
541-991-8208 | 3996 Highway 101
Florence Food Share
541-997-9110 | 2190 Spruce St.
Helping Hands Coalition
2100 Spruce St.
Mapleton Food Share
541-268-2715 | 10718 Highway 126
Siuslaw Outreach Services
541-997-2816 | 1576 12th St.