Douglas County, Lane County’s politically conservative neighbor to the south, is one of the few in the state that has tried to address homelessness by installing a shelter for the unhoused.
However, thanks to the city of Roseburg, the county has to take the homeless respite shelter down by Dec. 2.
On Nov. 25, in a carefully worded — perhaps slightly snarky — press release, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice expressed frustration with the city’s rejection of the temporary solution, despite numerous problems solved by the shelter. Boice says the shelter was put in place after the community voiced safety and health concerns for homeless people sleeping downtown by the courthouse.
The city impeded the county’s ability to get a permit for the shelter, the release says. “There is no clear pathway to get to an approval of a Conditional Use Permit,” Boice says of the city’s refusal. While there were some complaints from the public (or rather, one member of the public), “closure ultimately comes from an impasse with the city of Roseburg.”
Although located on county property, the shelter was on an area of land where commercial zoning required a conditional use permit from the city.
To address “issues with the homeless people that were sleeping, littering and defecating near the entrances of the courthouse,” Boice presented an idea for a temporary shelter as a pilot project, followed by a more permanent shelter later.
The temporary shelter included a garbage can, portable toilet, a picnic table and a sharps disposable container, all covered by a small metal structure. The site also came with a list of rules for keeping the area clean. Overall, it was able to shelter about seven to 11 individuals each night.
Although the county was hoping to work with Roseburg on establishing the temporary camp and working on long-term homeless solutions, Commissioner Boice says in the release that he realized the city continually opposed the shelter.
“Instead, we ran into nothing but resistance and the people using the shelter have been continually cited for sleeping in it,” he says in a statement. “Despite attempts by the county to find a way to get a approval from the city, it became very apparent that there was no pathway for approval.”
The county noted numerous successes from the temporary shelter. This included eliminating complaints about safety and health concerns, eliminating needles being found in that section of town near the library, reducing littering issues, increased awareness of homeless issues in the county and provided a clean space for people to sleep.
The county says it encountered two problems: increased waste at the shelter site and increased complaints from “a single neighboring property owner.”
According to Oregon’s state website, the 2019 point-in-time count for Douglas County listed around 521 individuals experiencing homelessness in the county. Around 20 percent of those people are considered chronically homeless.
The press release also adds that the county learned from the temporary shelter project, and in interviewing occupants of the camp, found that many people had jobs and were searching for secure housing, some had mental health issues and addiction and others had chosen to live a homeless lifestyle.
Homeless shelters, even temporary ones, are not very common throughout the state. The release cites a study conducted by EndHomelessness.org that says only 36 percent of the communities in Oregon offer or have shelters available for those struggling with homelessness.
Commissioner Boice adds that despite the closing of the shelter, the county is continuing to look into other ideas that address homelessness. He points out that the sharps container and port-a-potty were being used and that means feces and needles were being properly disposed of.
“And we stand ready, willing and able to help not only the city of Roseburg, but all the cities in Douglas County should they have issues about how to address the issue,” he says.