Organizations working to house the homeless want to take advantage of recent changes in state law to set up clusters of wooden "microshelters” at several churches in and around Corvallis, but so far, at least, their efforts are hitting a roadblock in the form of city and county ordinances.
House Bill 2916, passed by the 2019 Legislature, allows local governments to authorize “transitional housing accommodations” within urban growth boundaries for people who lack permanent or safe shelter and who cannot be placed in other low-income housing. Oregon Revised Statute 203.082, enacted in 2017, says local governments can permit religious institutions to offer overnight camping space for homeless people sleeping in their vehicles.
The Housing Action Team of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition has partnered with several Corvallis-area faith communities in a project called Safe Place, which aims to provide cheap but sturdy wooden shelters with locking doors and electric heat for people experiencing homelessness.
Members of the group believe both state laws provide an avenue for addressing an urgent need for transitional housing, and several microshelters have already been built. But they can’t be occupied without local government approval – and city and county officials say there’s a process that must be followed before that can be granted.
The Rev. Jennifer Butler of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, one of the people behind the project, said local officials need to pick up the pace of change.
“It is cold outside. People don’t have a place to be safe,” she said. “You don’t have the well-being of your entire community in mind if you’re working this slowly and using language like ‘not getting ahead of the process.’”
Butler’s church, at 4515 SW West Hills Road, is currently hosting eight homeless people in a tent village known as Safe Camp on a portion of its property that is just outside the city limits. The camp has operated since July under a series of temporary approvals from the county, and the church has applied for a conditional use permit that would allow it to continue providing shelter to the homeless on its property. A hearing on that application is scheduled for next month (see box for details).
On Tuesday, the first batch of microshelters was delivered to the church and set up on a small gravel lot screened by a wooden privacy fence. Butler said her church is hoping to host up to seven shelters on that lot, which, like Safe Camp, is under Benton County jursidiction.
The Corvallis Evangelical Church at 1525 NW Kings Blvd. and the First United Methodist Church at 1165 NW Monroe Avenue have agreed to host at least one shelter apiece, she added, and other congregations are considering joining the project as well if the legal hurdles can be cleared.
“We have other faith leaders we’re talking to,” Butler said. “(The idea) is that this spreads out across the community and becomes part of the tapestry of what Corvallis is doing to address houselessness.”
Garrett Beatty, an associate pastor at Corvallis Evangelical Church, said his congregation wants to do what it can to help.
“There’s a section in our parking lot that would work really well,” he said. “We could start with one, and as we learn the ins and outs of how this would work, we might be able to take up to three.”
The microshelters come in several different designs, measuring from 8-by-10 to 8-by-15 feet, and look like miniature houses with a pitched roof and a tiny front porch. Each unit is insulated and is equipped with an electric heater to keep the interior warm and a locking door to keep the occupant – and their belongings — safe and secure.
Materials cost about $3,000 per shelter, according to Cassandra Robertson of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, which is taking donations for the Safe Place project.
Three local contractors — G. Christianson Construction, Mark Kosmerl Construction and Henderer Design & Build — have donated their services to build the microshelters, and E.D. Hughes Excavating is providing free delivery.
The process of change
Similar shelters are already being used at places like Opportunity Village in Eugene and Kenton Women’s Village in Portland, but it’s not yet clear when — or if — they’ll become legal in the Corvallis area.
It’s possible that First Congregational could get a green light to start using the shelters after the Benton County Planning Commission considers the church’s conditional use permit application on March 17, said Greg Verret, the county’s community development director. But even if the commission grants a permit that would allow the shelters, that decision could be appealed.
The county is also working on draft code language that would allow transitional housing on certain properties and vehicle camping on church properties, Verret said, but those code changes will have to go through a public engagement process before they are presented to the Board of Commissioners for possible approval.
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“It is new territory,” Verret said. “Both the city and the county are working on understanding what these structures are, how they function and what regulations apply to them.”
Corvallis Community Development Director Paul Bilotta said city staff members have held a number of meetings with Safe Place supporters in recent months to discuss the microshelter idea, but he said the city’s role in those meetings has been limited to answering technical questions.
Before city code could be changed to accommodate the shelters, he added, there would have to be a formal process leading to approval by the City Council, and nobody has initiated that yet. The impetus could come from a city councilor or from HOPE, the new city-county advisory board working on issues of housing and homelessness, or it could come from an ordinary citizen.
“There is a formal application process,” he said. “You fill out an application, you propose some sort of text, and then it goes to the council.”
A sense of urgency
Supporters of the Safe Place project say homelessness has reached crisis levels and needs to be addressed immediately.
“The shelters are running at capacity,” said Dan Easdale, lead case manager with Corvallis Housing First. “We’re out of space.”
Shawn Collins, former project manager for HOPE’s predecessor, the Housing Opportunities Action Council, said allowing microshelters could take some of the pressure off those facilities while giving homeless people an opportunity to get off the streets and, ultimately, into permanent housing.
He sees Safe Place as a promising alternative to the current state of affairs, in which people who don’t have a roof over their head set up a tent in an illegal location for a week or two until they get rousted by the police.
“They will move somewhere else, and then the whole cycle will start all over again,” he said.
“The opportunity that’s developing here is to have a safe space where people can begin to get settled.”
Whatever code changes are ultimately proposed, however, seem likely to face some level of citizen opposition.
While some neighbors of Safe Camp have been supportive, others have made their displeasure loud and clear — some have even threatened to file a lawsuit to force the camp to close.
Matthew Philpott, who has lived across the street from the First Congregational United Church of Christ for 14 years, said conditions in the neighborhood have gone downhill since the camp opened last summer, even though illegal camping has been occurring on the neighboring tree farm for decades.
There’s a lot of garbage on the streets these days, Philpott said, and he sees lots of people coming and going from the camp at all hours. He said he hears fights and loud arguments happening at the camp and has been accosted twice by homeless people, including one encounter he found so threatening that he’s started carrying pepper spray when he walks his dogs in the neighborhood.
“We never had these kinds of problems until Safe Camp came around. It seems to be a magnet that’s attracting all kinds of undesirables to our neighborhood, and we’re concerned with that,” he said.
“The people who are driving this truck get to go home at night and not have to deal with this,” Philpott added. “We have to live with it.”
Philpott thinks city and county officials need to consider long and hard before doing anything that would allow more homeless people to be sheltered in residential areas like his.
“We need a public process, we need deliberation, we need public testimony – all those thing,” he said.
“I’m glad they’re not ramming this through.”