An organization serving people experiencing homelessness in Astoria has had a contentious relationship with some neighboring businesses in the coastal city’s downtown. LiFEBoat Services is prominently located on Commercial Street, near a convenience store and a winery. The nonprofit provides meals and other services. It has received numerous complaints about trash left on the street outside as well as the behavior of some of the organization’s clientele. Executive Director Osarch Orak says LiFEBoat Services is doing everything it can to address these issues and that things are improving. Some local business owners agree, but others remain skeptical. We hear from Orak and from David Reid, executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a conversation about the challenges that come from providing support to people experiencing homelessness. That’s what LiFEBoat Services does in downtown Astoria. Over the last year or so the nonprofit has had a contentious relationship with neighboring businesses who have complained about trash left on the street in addition to the behavior of some of the organization’s clientele. Social media posts and a recent meeting have gotten very heated. So how much room is there now for common ground? Osarch Orak is the executive director of LiFEBoat. He joins us to talk about this along with David Reid, who is the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. Welcome to you both.
David Reid: Good afternoon.
Osarch Orak: Hello.
Miller: Osarch Orak first. For people who aren’t familiar with downtown Astoria, can you give us a sense for where LiFEBoat Services is located? Because it really does seem that location is a key part of this conversation.
Orak: We are located in the heart of Astoria, downtown area, 1040 Commercial Street.
Miller: If you could have put LiFEBoat anywhere, would you have chosen that location?
Orak: As a matter of fact, from 2018 to 2020, we put out more than 10 proposals to locations on the outskirts of town. Every time we came to what our purpose was and what we’re going to be doing, it was basically, ‘Not in our backyard.’ So the first space we had [inaudible], ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do.’ We jumped on it and that’s where we are.
Miller: Why did you want to be on the outskirts of town?
Orak: Because we did foresee there would be a certain group of individuals who would not be extremely happy about us being right downtown. And we just wanted to avoid all of that. So, we started on the outskirts but landed where we landed.
Miller: In other words, in the end, you don’t actually feel that surprised about the pushback that you’ve gotten?
Orak: No, not at all. We got the same pushback since 2014, when we were just serving free meals out of the back of cars in the parks there on the outskirts of town; the same faction that has been against us were against us at those times as well.
Miller: Can you give a sense for what a typical day looks like at LiFEBoat Services, the various services that you provide?
Orak: LiFEBoat Services has two different programs. One of them is the Beacon Clubhouse which is part of the Clubhouse International. There are over 300 clubhouses worldwide. It’s a clubhouse for people with diagnosed mental illness and that is the only requirement for membership is a diagnosis. We get a referral from a mental health care professional. The goal is to have our members help us operate the clubhouse and, in doing so, they help me create meals for the navigation center downstairs, which is Filling Empty Bellies. That’s the point of contention here, is that we serve the homeless meals once a day, Monday through Friday. We also provide laundry services, clothing closet, food pantry, clean socks everyday, shower passes – we’re about to install showers and we’re looking to also do overnight stays here, emergency shelter. We have computers available, fax, coffee all day, pastries, just basically anything that we can try to get out to people in need, we do so. We also have co-located services with our local service agencies: Clatsop Community Action, Clatsop Behavioral Health. We work with the Victim Services at the courthouse over here. We work with parole and probation to get people’s probation hours out of the way. We want to expand countywide and help to provide meals to other locations as well. Also we’re looking to do a tent site.
Miller: A lot to get to there. But I want to turn to David Reid. As I noted, you’re the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. What kinds of concerns have neighbors, have business owners or building owners around there, brought up specifically about LiFEBoat’s location?
Reid: I have a number of those things here- I do want to start out, for your listeners sake and also for Oz’s sake, by saying we are not two opposing sides of an issue. I think we’re both representing different stakeholders in a larger goal here. And the goal is having a healthy, safe and productive community. I love the work that Oz is doing, and we’re gonna talk a little bit more about that, I think, later in the show. But the things that business owners have reported and we know of: garbage and refuse and waste, loitering, stuff in the streets, actual active drug use and drug dealing. Again, I’m not sure that it’s fair to lay all this at Oz’s feet. Some of this stuff was going on; it’s just now become concentrated in a fairly small area. There have been thefts, there have been threatening behavior and people not feeling safe – both customers and employees in the downtown area. Those are the things that are getting reported, and those are real honest-to-goodness problems. But again, with this location, Oz is there. And right now, short of a time machine and an alternate location, the goal is to find a way – and we’re working towards that – is to find a way to have some sense of equilibrium where we’re all kind of getting what we want out of the situation. We’re helping the people that need help, and the businesses have a safe and productive way of doing their business.
Miller: Osarch, what do you make of this pushback that, ‘Yes, we don’t mind that you’re doing this work. We like that you’re providing services to these populations, but it’s leading to problems outside.’ How do you reckon with that basic complaint?
Orak: I feel for people who feel fear walking down the street, and I hear everyone’s complaints. That’s why we’ve made concerted efforts to clean it up out there, and I feel like we have. It’s a much different look outside than it was a few months ago; we’ve excluded a bunch of people. Had everyone come to us with their concerns from the beginning, as we asked… We said, ‘Come on down, meet us, let’s talk about how we can fix this. We don’t have to like each other or agree with what one another is doing, but let’s go ahead and work together because we are a community.’ I feel like we have made the steps to listen to people’s concerns. It’s pretty clean out there, and has been for a little while now.
Miller: You’re saying you reached out to neighboring business owners. And what did you hear from them?
Orak: Nothing to my face. Right at first I went out, introduced myself, said: ‘This is what we’re doing. Feel free to reach out to us.’ We made public statements and social media and whatnot that anyone could come on down and take a peek at what we’re doing and give us their concerns if they had any, and then we would work towards solutions.
Miller: David Reid, how much of this issue, from what you’ve seen or what you’ve been hearing about, is specifically about illegal behavior as opposed to people simply being outside?
Reid: I would say the preponderance is about illegal behavior, but there’s an undercurrent of different standards for different folks. I will also say, though, that Oz is right. The work that he and his team have done to address some of the issues has been noticeable, and we are definitely moving in the right direction. I will also say that there are a lot of– a growing number, I won’t say a lot. There are a growing number of business owners who have gone through the tour with Oz, who are supportive of what he’s doing there. One only has to take a tour of that facility to see that there are good intentions, there are good works happening and there are good outcomes happening there. So, it’s been slow to come, but there are some business owners in the immediate vicinity I think, Oz, who I think you can say have been a little more supportive than those that are just talking about you behind your back.
Miller: Osarch, have you felt that as well? Have you felt some change in the last weeks, more of a dialogue?
Orak: Maybe not necessarily dialogue, but for sure we’ve felt like we’re a little less under the gun. It has quieted down quite a bit since the last article came out in the Astorian.
Miller: David Reid, what role, if any, does local law enforcement play in this conversation?
Reid: They’re part of it for sure. When we’re talking about the unlawful behavior, there is definitely a law enforcement component of this. The city and the police department have been responsive in not only responding to actual calls for service but also in changing some of the city statutes and rules that allow for enforcement of some things that are actual problems. In addition, the city has hired, or assigned, a police officer whose sole reason is community outreach, and they’re basically based downtown. That particular police officer is somebody who is well known to, and I believe trusted by, a lot of houseless people in Astoria. All of those things are to the good, all of that is movement in the right direction. I think that’s really all people want right now, that we’re going to be moving in a direction that gets us to a point where we’re working together.
Miller: Osarch Orak, what have you heard about all of this from your landlord, from the owner of the building?
Orak: They had some concerns because obviously people had been contacting them. So much so that they came down to that forum that we had here downtown a while back because they weren’t necessarily sure whether I was telling them the truth or the other people were telling the truth. Ultimately she came down, heard both sides, and believed me. Now we have a five year lease with a five year option. So we’re fairly solidified where we’re at, for right now anyway.
Miller: The end result was you actually got, in a sense permission, to be able to stay there for longer?
Miller: So what are your longer term plans for providing services at that particular location?
Orak: Honestly, we look to this being kind of a hub. We do want to look for another location and we want to look for a camping site somewhere on the outskirts or whatnot that we can possibly place people, more problematic people that might carry a lot of stuff around. We want to do storage lockers in a location where people can have their stuff, and it feels safe, so they don’t have to lug it around with them all the time. Or have a place that they can go hang out that’s not downtown, but then also be able to provide services to that location. Our short term goal is to find other tent sites and then look into low cost, low barrier housing.
Miller: David Reid, what’s your longer term vision for the provision of services for these groups of people?
Reid: LiFEBoat is a business, and their business is their business. I think my bigger goal is on the community level. The Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to provide the means for the collective and sustained success of our local economy and way of life. That healthy economy doesn’t, by itself, fix any of the problems that we’re talking about here, but an unhealthy economy absolutely makes these problems worse. So my goal is to, like I say, we’ll find whatever status we can, so that those businesses surrounding LiFEBoat can also thrive while LiFEBoat does what it does. That’s what I’m looking for, is a way so that nobody’s preventing anybody from being successful in what they’re trying to do.
Miller: David Reid and Osarch Orak, thanks very much for joining us.
Guests: Thank you.
Miller: David Reid is the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. Osarch Orak is the executive director for LiFEBoat Services and the program director for Filling Empty Bellies.