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Law Enforcement Officials Argue Rural Homeless Services Worsen Problem

Jan 21, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 8:04 pm

Chilly winds and hail don't bother Buckshot Cunningham, who lived outside without a shelter for years until he came across Hope Village in southern Oregon.

"This is my umbrella," he says as he shrugs on the hood of his coat while walking into a mid-January winter storm.

Hope Village is run by Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit serving low-income people in Medford, Ore., near the border with California. It's a collection of about a dozen small cottages with a communal kitchen, dining area and bathrooms.

This is what housing advocates call a low-barrier shelter, with few rules and requirements to get in. There are some behavioral rules — you can't be violent or do drugs on the premises — but you don't have to be sober when you come in and you can bring your family, partner or dog.

"Twelve years of drugs and alcohol" is how Cunningham says he became homeless. But there's a bit more to his story: A career as a firefighting smokejumper left him with physical disabilities. He lost his son to suicide, then his wife to cancer.

"And I just went downhill from there," he says.

Homelessness is often seen as an urban issue, but rural areas along the West Coast are also struggling with large homeless populations. Many of these areas don't have the resources for shelters like Hope Village, but even when they do, they're sometimes reluctant to build them.

Viewed as "enabling"

Just across the state border in rural Northern California, Shasta County had earned a $1.6 million grant to help fund a similar low-barrier shelter. County supervisors considered its proposal last winter when they heard from Police Chief Michael Johnson from the city of Anderson.

"It is just another enabling mechanism for the homeless, the transients and the displaced people here," Johnson told the board in February 2019. "When you create something and enable people, you're going to attract more."

Shasta County supervisors pushed the project back several times, citing their concerns about crime and a fear that services such as this would attract more homeless people. So Johnson proposed an alternative: a detention facility to house people who have committed low-level crimes such as public drinking, urinating in public or sleeping in public spaces, which are sometimes unavoidable for people without homes.

Johnson says incarceration can be used as a tool to provide services to people who are homeless and struggling with drug addiction or mental health issues.

"That's our opportunity to try to get that particular person involved in a program that will turn their life around and help them," Johnson says. "That's when they're most vulnerable, when they're the most willing to accept help and possibly agree to go into a program like that."

Back in Oregon, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler has a similar sentiment. Sickler has spent the last few months advocating for a ballot measure to increase jail space at the Jackson County Jail in Medford.

"Jail is a resource because when they come [to jail], there may be opportunities to become sober. And once they become sober, they tend to start to think differently," Sickler says. "Maybe they would see a benefit to taking advantage of available services."

Sickler and Johnson say they don't want their rural communities to become like San Francisco or Los Angeles — overwhelmed with large homeless populations. They say providing free housing to homeless people is an urban approach, and it isn't working. Instead they emphasize law and order: bigger jails and more police officers.

"Housing first" alternative

Tristia Bauman of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty disagrees with that emphasis. "That is not only an ineffective approach — it's also the single most expensive approach," she says.

Bauman says "housing first" initiatives — that is, giving homes to people with few strings attached — is the best way to address homelessness.

"It produces better outcomes," Bauman says. "Not only in health, but also in education. And importantly to any lawmaker: It saves communities money. In fact, it is the cheapest and most effective intervention, and that is established by a number of national studies."

Similar to the shelter proposal in Shasta County, Hope Village in Oregon faced some pushback in its early stages a few years ago. Some people feared that it would increase crime and generate litter.

But resident Buckshot Cunningham says those fears proved to be wrong.

"Look at this place," he says, motioning to the neat row of cottages. "It's clean; it's beautiful. And it stays that way seven days a week, all year round. It's pretty simple."

Cunningham has had his own room here for about four months. Now he's sober, has a girlfriend and is saving money to rent an apartment.

"Getting my feet back on the ground here has enabled me to get back to society," he says. "Making me better myself. Not making me, but helping me want to."

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We often think of homelessness as an urban issue, but rural areas also struggle with homeless populations, and many of these towns don't have money for shelters. But even when they do, leaders are sometimes reluctant to build them. Jefferson Public Radio's April Ehrlich reports from the Oregon-California border.

APRIL EHRLICH, BYLINE: Chilly winds and hail don't bother Buckshot Cunningham, who lived without a shelter for years until he came across this tiny house village, a shelter run by a nonprofit called Rogue Retreat in Medford on the Oregon-California border.

BUCKSHOT CUNNINGHAM: They're little houses. They're 10-by-10s, and I'm going to show you one.

EHRLICH: Years of working as a firefighter left Cunningham with physical disabilities. He became addicted to drugs and alcohol, lost his son to suicide then lost his wife to cancer.

CUNNINGHAM: And I just went downhill from there.

EHRLICH: Now he's sober. He has a girlfriend, and he's saving money to rent an apartment.

CUNNINGHAM: Getting my feet back on the ground here has enabled me to get back in society, making me better myself - not making me. It's helping me want to.

EHRLICH: The Hope Village is what housing advocates call a low-barrier shelter in that there are few rules and requirements to get in. National studies have shown that these shelters are the most effective and cost-efficient way to address homelessness, but not everyone is open to the idea.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: It is just another enabling mechanism for the homeless, the transients and the displaced people here.

EHRLICH: Right across the border in northern California, Police Chief Michael Johnson of the city of Anderson tells the Shasta County Board of Supervisors that he doesn't want to see a similar shelter built here.

JOHNSON: When you create something and enable people, you're going to attract more. And we're going to create a bigger problem by erecting such a center.

EHRLICH: Shasta County had earned a grant to help pay for the shelter, but county supervisors kicked the project back several times, citing their concerns about crime and the fear that if you build it, they will come. So Johnson suggested an alternative - a detention facility to house people who have committed low-level crimes like public drinking, urinating in public or sleeping in public spaces, which is still illegal here - crimes that are generally unavoidable when you don't have a home. Back in Oregon, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler says jail can actually help people living on the streets.

NATHAN SICKLER: Jail is a resource because when they come there, there may be opportunities to become sober. And once someone becomes sober, they tend to think a little differently. Maybe they would see more benefit into taking advantage of available services.

EHRLICH: Sheriff Sickler and Chief Johnson say they don't want their rural communities to become like San Francisco or LA, overwhelmed with large homeless populations. They say providing free housing to homeless people is an urban approach, and it isn't working. Instead, they emphasize law and order - bigger jails and more police officers.

TRISTIA BAUMAN: That is not only an ineffective approach. It's also the single most expensive approach.

EHRLICH: Attorney Tristia Bauman is with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

BAUMAN: It is not unheard of for rural communities to use their punitive policies to try to get people to leave.

EHRLICH: Back at the Hope Village in rural southern Oregon, Buckshot Cunningham says shelters like this help people, and the fear that they contribute to crime or litter is simply unfounded.

CUNNINGHAM: Look at this place. It's clean, it's beautiful, and it stays this way seven days a week all year-round. It's pretty simple.

EHRLICH: Rogue Retreat plans to build another tiny house village an hour north of here, but it's facing some pushback from city councilors. Nonetheless, it's forging ahead, hoping in time that it can prove to this rural community that providing housing to people who don't have homes is something worth investing in.

For NPR News, I'm April Ehrlich in southern Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACO'S "SATIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.