In whitewater rafting there’s a risk of getting sucked into a hole you can’t get out of, aptly called a Keeper. It drags you down, spins you around, spits you out barely long enough to let you inhale, then sucks you under again. Unless you’re lucky, or someone pulls you out, it sometimes proves deadly.
Homelessness can feel a lot like that.
Fortunately, there are solutions under development that should eventually help. “Housing First” particularly shows promise. The concept is that outreach workers will entice you out of the Keeper and feed you into housing where the entry bar has been lowered considerably. Great in concept, but tougher in reality. We still need actual rental units that will accept less-than-stellar tenants, often with poor credit, mental problems or addiction issues. Locally, some private non-profits try to make this work, but ultimately we’re at the mercy of conventional landlords in a tight market. So for Eugene it’s more vision than it is reality. We don’t have enough apartments to put people in, nor do we have sufficient funding to provide the ongoing support these new tenants will need. Our greatest challenge isn’t so much a lack of imagination – it’s a lack of capacity. That, and a persistent fear.
Consequently, much of our housing taunts rather than lures – it says look at how great this is; now feel free to convince a landlord to take a chance on you, come up with first, last and deposit, explain your last eviction, or sign onto the two-year waiting list. We offer an illusion of a way out, then watch as the Keeper sucks people back down for a few more rounds. As one Oregon police chief pointed out, “we don’t need a ten year plan—we need a ten minute plan.”
For those of us on the front lines, this has been glaringly obvious for far too long. Solutions, however well intended, take years to fund and build, and in the end only serve a small percentage of the homeless population. In the meantime, it’s not a mystery why a handful end up in the Rose Garden or squatting on private property, as noted in recent media coverage. Yes, some would make terrible neighbors, but most are reasonable people who are down on their luck, ranging from the medically fragile to military veterans, with one thing in common: they’re just doing the best they can to find some place to be.
Fortunately, local advocates have nurtured a little hope in the form of creative alternatives – donor-funded programs that serve the homeless within weeks or months, in safe, clean, positive environments, at a fraction of the cost of conventional housing. These include host sites, micro-housing, rest stops or Safe Spot communities. All provide realistic, highly successful lifelines for homeless individuals who truly want to rebuild positive lives in our community. All of these programs are worthy of support and emulation, but as one example, consider Community Supported Shelters’ approach:
Community Supported Shelters runs four Safe Spot communities in cooperation with the City of Eugene, focused on women, veterans, people with disabilities, and young adults, all clustered within a mile of each other. The people we serve scarcely resemble scary stereotypes – they are folks who lost their jobs, or lost supportive family members, or fell victim to medical bankruptcy, or escaped domestic violence. In almost every case–once they settle in, get a good night’s sleep, and start feeling safe–they stabilize and start seeing different options. They smile. And within weeks or months they are able to begin rebuilding their lives by looking for work, learning about available social services, going to school, etc.
Community Supported Shelters intentionally constructs very low-cost shelters, using a unique Conestoga Hut design or, even cheaper, raised, sheltered tent platforms. These serve as transitional shelters with 10-month maximum stays in most cases–fenced, secure, supervised, quiet at night and very community-oriented. Their monthly work parties clean up parks and gardens. Police like them.
If you’d like to learn more, contact us for tours. As effective as our Safe Spot communities have proven themselves to be, too many neighborhoods remain wary, often out of legitimate concerns, but mostly because they haven’t met us. Unfortunately, as a result, the NIMBY position has trumped voices of compassion again and again. We’re disappointed by that reality, but undeterred. We hope we can win you over once you realize this: We’re not so scary up close. Once you see how we operate we’re hoping you’ll find the heart, and the courage, to welcome us as neighbors.
This article originally ran in the Eugene Register Guard in 2016.
Tod Schneider coordinated the City of Eugene Operation 365 Veterans project in 2015, which housed over 400 veterans. He currently serves on the board of directors for Community Supported Shelters. Find more information about CSS at our website, www.communitysupportedshelters.org