The June 24 article highlighting the Oregon Department of Transportation clearing camps in the Corvallis BMX and skate park areas documents a long-standing practice in our community — when homelessness is visible, it becomes unacceptable, and must be “cleaned up.” That “clean up” is often simply a relocation. It displaces people who are already experiencing displacement — from their homes, families, and the infrastructure and supportive systems most of us take for granted. Unfortunately, the actions we take to clear camps — removing not only trash, tents and tarps, but people from public view — don’t really solve the underlying root problems.
We don’t have a culture that systematically organizes to restore those who are poor and unhoused to safety and health, and we struggle to develop consensus on not only how to help, but whether we should. Too often we focus on the wrong questions, like where people are from — rather than focusing on how to address real needs. The Corvallis 2040 Vision suggests the community we want provides safe, supportive, restorative services and affordable housing for all that need it in our community. But how do we get there?
This is usually where the conversation breaks down. Building a path to the future is hard. Resources and political support are often unpredictable, and we may not currently have the organizational capacity to create and sustain massive projects. Predicting demand is difficult, and building out capacity to resolve problems we want to end, like homelessness, is often suspect.
Perhaps the best thing we can do now is get clarity and agreement around the future we want to see, and work backwards — laying out the desired outcome, without becoming too embroiled in the questions of how to pay for it, where to develop it, who will deliver it and who it serves.
I see a future where no one in our community is truly homeless. Where even those temporarily experiencing a housing crisis know that they are in a place they are welcome. That supports and sustains not only their physical needs, but their need for belonging, safety, and connection. Where they are surrounded by people who care not about what they look like, or where they came from, but whether they are well fed, healthy, and secure in the knowledge they have a place in the world, and are seen as valuable. And where there are networks in place that can quickly step in to help when housing, food or physical and mental safety are in jeopardy — providing temporary housing that is truly temporary, because it’s the first step on a path to restoration of something we all need — safe, secure, stable housing.
It’s not impossible, even if we don’t immediately know how to make it happen. But it will never happen if we don’t all acknowledge that regardless of income, race or ethnicity, sexual identity, criminal background — regardless of any attribute — home matters. Knowing that you belong, that your story and your life matter to the life of those around you, can make a profound difference to someone seeking to recover from trauma, loss and victimization. Knowing that you can never expect to simply be cast aside and displaced, your space and belongings “cleaned up” to provide greater comfort and visual order to those with the privilege of a fixed address, means you have a home — a place of value in the community.
The first step to a future without homelessness is acknowledging that when we displace our fellow humans without respecting the real needs we all share, we diminish not only them but ourselves. It’s time we take that step.
Shawn Collins is the executive director of Unity Shelter, a nonprofit that seeks to provide shelter, through collaborative care, to people who are homeless in the Corvallis area.