Ward 9 Corvallis City Council candidates on houselessness

by | Oct 27, 2022 | 2022 Elections, Candidates on Houselessness | 0 comments

Candidates for the Corvallis City Council were asked five questions about houselessness and how they would respond to the issue if elected to the council. Here are the answers from the three candidates in Ward 9. The answers have not been edited except when needed for clarity.

Tony Cadena

1. What is the proper role of the city of Corvallis in providing services to people who are unsheltered?  To list a few examples: Should the city be working to provide shelter? Permanent supported housing? Affordable housing? Case management and medical services for houseless people? What has the city gotten right in its approach to houselessness? What could the city do better?

I must acknowledge that I don’t have deep understanding or experience in this area, so it’s hard for me to evaluate what has gone well or not so well. The city of Corvallis clearly has a role to play as I believe a fundamental responsibility of  local government is to ensure public safety, which includes safety of those who are unhoused as well as for the entire community. First responders (e.g., police, fire), a role of local government, often interact with those who are unhoused, and thus the city must address the needs of its residents. Appropriately staffing and improving outcomes of the CORE response team is a role the city clearly plays. The needs of those who are unhoused are diverse and solutions need to address the spectrum of needs from housing, transitional housing, substance abuse and mental health services, etc.

I don’t believe the role of the city is to directly provide all needed services but rather to work with partner organizations such as Housing First, Unity Shelter, etc. The HOPE Advisory Board highlights the coordination and connecting role the city should play. Partnership with the county and state is critical as houselessness is not an issue which exists or is solved within the city boundaries. The city should participate actively in the joint coordination office as defined under House Bill 4123.

The affordability and variety of housing options is a role in which the city can very much drive and influence. Moving from transitional or temporary housing requires an end point which is sustainable in the long term. The city plays a central role in increasing the number and types of housing options, primarily through the Land Development Code.   

In short, the city should work towards joint goals with service providers, seek additional state and federal funding, improve the effectiveness of the CORE response team, and establish measurable outcomes toward solutions which meet the needs of a diverse population while improving the livability for all residents. 

2. Considering the recommendations from the city-county HOPE (Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity) advisory board: Which ones would you place the highest priority on and why? What items would you add to the list of recommendations and why? What role should the city and the City Council take in implementing and funding those priorities?

I particularly like the recommendations to facilitate, coordinate, and improve (implied) data and metrics to determine program success. My experience in the outcome based metrics in the nonprofit sector has reinforced that that approach drives improvement in programs to best attain desired results. I believe a feasible implementation of a crisis response team is an excellent effort to address the variety of needs first responders often encounter. Many of the recommendations clearly have come about from a thoughtful process. I see the recommendations actions addressing stable funding streams which are critical to the sustainability of, and improvement of, actions. The City Council should use its role to align funding requirements which are within the city’s control and to advocate for and actively seek out funding at the county, state, and federal level. Many of the recommendations have an impact on city resources and discussion, refinement, and alignment are important steps to addressing mutual interests.  

3. The Corvallis Police Department has launched a trial program with the Benton County Health Department to respond to people experiencing mental health crises; many of those people are unsheltered. The program is reminiscent of the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, but with at least one key difference: CAHOOTS calls are responded to by a medic and an experienced crisis worker. In Corvallis, a uniformed officer and a mental health professional respond to calls. Is this the correct approach? Why or why not?

To determine if this is the right approach, those involved would need to assess aspects of the CAHOOTS program: resources required, what worked well, what did not work well, the “why” of success or lack of success, and the overall effectiveness of the program — did it achieve its desired outcomes. That analysis should be, to the best extent possible, applied to Corvallis’s environment. I would hope that such an effort was undertaken in creating Corvallis’s trial program. I know from having lived in Portland, that some significant percentage of time mental health crises needed the support of law enforcement to ensure the safety of all involved. I don’t expect police officers to be mental health professionals, but I do expect they recognize and respond appropriately to mental health crises and ensure safety as required.

4. Estimates are that the city spends tens of thousands of dollars each year posting and clearing camps where unsheltered people have been living. Do you think this is the best approach, or are there other strategies the city could consider – for example, should the city work with providers to create a managed camp or a sanctioned site where people who are unsheltered could settle?

Spending significant funds on posting and clearing camps without a clear long-term solution is not a satisfactory approach. However, I understand what drives those actions, such as public health, safety, environmental concern, legal concerns, etc. The city should work with service providers and the broader community to explore longer-term solutions which serve the needs of all its residents, housed and unhoused and fulfill its responsibilities to the community. Those responsibilities include: access to city resources (e.g., parks), limiting city liability, public health and safety, protecting the local environment, etc. 

I would look to other cities’ experience of managed camps or sanctioned sites for successes and lessons learned to determine if those solutions met the needs of those communities to support their residents to thrive. The concept of a managed camp has intuitive appeal, but also has potential downsides to becoming an obstacle to the end goal of ensuring housing and care for vulnerable populations.

5. A proposal is in the works to establish a “rolling moratorium” on posting and clearing camps in city parks for a certain length of time; for example, specific parks would be identified as not to be posted or cleared for specific time periods. At the end of the period, it would be clear which park would be next on the rolling moratorium, and support from nonprofit providers and volunteers would assist in movement from one site to the next. Do you think this proposal is worth exploring? What do you see as its benefits and drawbacks?  

I think the proposal is worth considering and planning through how it might be implemented in a manner which proactively plans for potential benefit or drawback. Some of the benefits would certainly include stability and predictability for the unhoused, access by and to service providers, preservation of property of the unhoused, and perhaps better understanding and assessment of the variety of needs and services required. Drawbacks might include the degradation of city parks not created for long-term camping, public health and sanitation, liability to the city, the inability to ensure compliance with sanctioned sites (and thus not being able to realize the benefits of sanctioned sites), and impact on local neighborhoods or citywide residents who might use park sites. I supported exploration of how this proposal would address benefits and drawbacks and perhaps create well-defined trials of such an approach.

Cliff Feldman

1. What is the proper role of the city of Corvallis in providing services to people who are unsheltered?  To list a few examples: Should the city be working to provide shelter? Permanent supported housing? Affordable housing? Case management and medical services for houseless people? What has the city gotten right in its approach to houselessness? What could the city do better?

If you happen to visit a city or even a foreign country, and if an illness or accident should occur, that city’s EMTs or that country’s medical system will care for you. People living in Corvallis, whether sheltered or not have the same rights to care that a visitor would. The city should provide shelter. It may not be the long-term answer, but this is an emergency, and it is the city’s moral obligation to help. There are now funds available to the city and county through the state Project Turnkey 2.0 bill, and I fully expect the city or county should access these funds for the purchase or conversion of hotels, motels, and other vacant space to more permanent housing. Beyond shelter for the houseless,affordable housing is needed to assist the working poor who have been simply priced out of the rental market, let alone the purchase market. This level of assistance should be included in appropriate infill developments that can provide housing for all who need it. The city has done a number of things right: creating the HOPE Board and workingwith private providers such as Unity Shelter. What it needs to do better is to re-think the process of sweeping houseless persons and their belongs off the map; rather, the City needs to protect the most vulnerable with additionalshelter options, even emergency options. 

2. Considering the recommendations from the city-county HOPE (Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity) advisory board: Which ones would you place the highest priority on and why? What items would you add to the list of recommendations and why? What role should the city and the City Council take in implementing and funding those priorities?

These are the recommendations I would prioritize: 1. provide organizational capacity to facilitate and coordinate providers; work with community partners and service providers to provide…funding…a strategically placed, safe, accessible, temporary sheltering system. I see these recommendations as the most valuable ways to end the cycle of illegal encampments and the inevitable clearing of them. 2. Explore the need and barriers to accessing housing… for those whose past history…. People who have had the least success finding permanent housing are those who create the greatest challenges to the community and caregivers. Housing the most ‘core’ houseless persons will hopefully free the City and its partners from the day-to-day monitoring of camps and difficult individuals. 3. Increase supportive services and stable funding streams. Funding and support are the keys to making positive changes for those most in need. I don’t have opinions yet about how the council can implement and fund these priorities until I’ve had more time to study these very complicated issues.

3. The Corvallis Police Department has launched a trial program with the Benton County Health Department to respond to people experiencing mental health crises; many of those people are unsheltered. The program is reminiscent of the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, but with at least one key difference: CAHOOTS calls are responded to by a medic and an experienced crisis worker. In Corvallis, a uniformed officer and a mental health professional respond to calls. Is this the correct approach? Why or why not?   

Unless there is a clear threat or occurrence of violence, a police officer should NOT respond to those in crises. How many times must we read about an officer shooting someone suffering from mental illness because he or she perceived a threat? Often, just the appearance of an officer causes an escalation that would not have occurred if well-trained people in plain clothes responded. Police are generally not trained to treat or even recognize mental illness episodes; they should not be a part of any response. 

4. Estimates are that the city spends tens of thousands of dollars each year posting and clearing camps where unsheltered people have been living. Do you think this is the best approach, or are there other strategies the city could consider – for example, should the city work with providers to create a managed camp or a sanctioned site where people who are unsheltered could settle?

The city would benefit from the hiring of a two-person response team that would act as first-responders to crisis incidents and provide information to the houseless community about shelter and services. Clearing the camps results in the poorest people losing their few possessions. It is only when the houseless have safe and stable shelter where both they and their possessions are safe can they begin to take the next steps needed to end the cycle of anxiety that is the cause of so much unfortunate behavior. Once in this shelter, they can move on to the day to day needs we all have: food, clothing, services, and employment. At the very least I would love to see a recognized provider such as SORT or Corvallis Housing First hire a response team with help from local foundations or the city. They could help manage the needs of a sanctioned site: providing proper sanitation, toilets, water, and mostly, the presence of a friendly and helpful ally.

5. A proposal is in the works to establish a “rolling moratorium” on posting and clearing camps in city parks for a certain length of time; for example, specific parks would be identified as not to be posted or cleared for specific time periods. At the end of the period, it would be clear which park would be next on the rolling moratorium, and support from nonprofit providers and volunteers would assist in movement from one site to the next. Do you think this proposal is worth exploring? What do you see as its benefits and drawbacks?  

I’d rather see a process where there is a permanent camp or camps that have sanitation facilities and are managed by my proposed response team. The nonprofits can certainly be a part of finding, creating, and managing permanent camps. But the best solution is more permanent housing of some kind: converted vacant buildings, hotels, etc. Give people a permanent address and you give them a permanent opportunity to improve their lives.

Nyssa Towsley

1. What is the proper role of the city of Corvallis in providing services to people who are unsheltered?  To list a few examples: Should the city be working to provide shelter? Permanent supported housing? Affordable housing? Case management and medical services for houseless people? What has the city gotten right in its approach to houselessness? What could the city do better?

The city has a duty to protect its most vulnerable community members. And, a truly effective approach to protecting our most vulnerable is going to require a multi-pronged approach. Yes, we need to meet the immediate needs of the unhoused, in terms of providing emergency resources, services, and housing. But, for truly sustainable change, we need to invest in longer-term solutions, such as expanded mental health and social services for everyone, to prevent houselessness in the first place. In addition, those struggling with housing instability need long-term supported housing and case management to address complex needs in a trauma-informed and culturally-appropriate manner. Finally, affordable housing options need to be expanded, so that folks can more easily transition out of houselessness, or, again, to prevent houselessness.

I believe the city has done well in conceptualizing a holistic approach, but what we need is better coordination, data collection, and measurement of metrics and other indicators of success for programs. Because the social safety net in this country is largely composed of nonprofits and not necessarily a unified government response, coordination between service providers and various organizations is needed, to ensure efficiency as well as to make it easier for those in need to find and access services. Developing metrics and measures of success is also important so we can target our response to ensure that what we’re doing is effective.

2. Considering the recommendations from the city-county HOPE (Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity) advisory board: Which ones would you place the highest priority on and why? What items would you add to the list of recommendations and why? What role should the city and the City Council take in implementing and funding those priorities?

All of the recommendations from the advisory board are important, of course. All of the recommendations are part of a holistic and effective approach to serving and protecting our community. The recommendations I would place the highest priority on are the recommendations regarding facilitating and coordinating data collection, and establishing program metrics and evaluation strategies. There are many organizations/service providers in the area providing support to the unhoused, and coordination is required not only for efficiency, but also to ensure community members are getting the specific kinds of support they require in a timely and efficient way. Developing program metrics and collecting data to evaluate whether our programs are effective and efficient is crucial to ensuring our response to houselessness is effective, efficient, and promotes the long-term success of those who utilize services.

The reason I prioritize these recommendations is that, without clear goal-setting and evaluation for programs, we could unintentionally spend time and money on less effective programming. Conversely, when a program is highly effective, without the data to support that claim, it will be harder to advocate for additional resources and funding from a variety of sources, including nonprofit, and government sectors, at the local, state and federal level.

3. The Corvallis Police Department has launched a trial program with the Benton County Health Department to respond to people experiencing mental health crises; many of those people are unsheltered. The program is reminiscent of the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, but with at least one key difference: CAHOOTS calls are responded to by a medic and an experienced crisis worker. In Corvallis, a uniformed officer and a mental health professional respond to calls. Is this the correct approach? Why or why not?  

While a step in the right direction, I do not think including a uniformed officer in our responses to these types of crises is the best possible approach. The CAHOOTS program in Eugene reports that their program has diverted 3-8% of calls from the police as a primary response. This means that our uniformed officers can instead focus their efforts on calls that they are more suited to handle, or which require that kind of response. CAHOOTS in Eugene also reports that only a very small percentage of calls (around 2%) that were routed through the CAHOOTS program required backup by a uniformed officer. This indicates that the uniformed officer presence is rarely needed in the first place.

Therefore, including uniformed officers in mental health crisis response is neither a good use of our policing resources, nor is it an effective use of the abilities of our uniformed officers. Uniformed officers may not be fully trained in responding to these types of emergencies, and there is always a risk of escalation. That risk of escalation can have serious consequences, which can be avoided by prioritizing a non-uniformed officer response.

While I believe that the proposed program in Corvallis is a step in the right direction, in that a mental health professional will respond in addition to a uniformed officer, meaning the response is not solely a police one, I do not believe it is necessarily the best response, nor is it the best use of our resources. If the Corvallis community feels that a uniformed officer presence is necessary in these cases, then I would argue that an important part of the process would be to provide additional training to uniformed officers on trauma-informed responses to mental health crises.

4. Estimates are that the city spends tens of thousands of dollars each year posting and clearing camps where unsheltered people have been living. Do you think this is the best approach, or are there other strategies the city could consider – for example, should the city work with providers to create a managed camp or a sanctioned site where people who are unsheltered could settle?

Posting and clearing camps where unsheltered people live are not an effective use of our funding. While encampments can present safety concerns, first and foremost for those living in them, clearing them without other services and supports made available to residents, is simply kicking the problem down the road, and not actually solving the root of the issue. This approach is neither compassionate, nor effective.

A far better use of our limited funds and resources would be to invest in long-term, evidence-based solutions, that both provide short-term support to community members, as well as solutions that attack the root of the problem of houselessness. Ultimately, I believe a holistic approach to addressing houselessness that provides both short- and long-term solutions is required.

5. A proposal is in the works to establish a “rolling moratorium” on posting and clearing camps in city parks for a certain length of time; for example, specific parks would be identified as not to be posted or cleared for specific time periods. At the end of the period, it would be clear which park would be next on the rolling moratorium, and support from nonprofit providers and volunteers would assist in movement from one site to the next. Do you think this proposal is worth exploring? What do you see as its benefits and drawbacks? 

This is another solution that I believe is a short-term one, which may have short-term benefits, but which must be supplemented by long-term approaches. This “rolling moratorium” approach may provide a small amount of stability and predictability for the unhoused living in such camps, however, ultimately, clearing camps is not a holistic solution. Organized support for the relocation of camps is a great opportunity to provide an entry point for services and coordination of complex care needs. But, ultimately, what these folks will need will include other approaches, such as long-term supportive housing, mental health support, and services to assist with navigating social programs, such as rent and income assistance.

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