In Coos Bay, homelessness is a growing concern for residents, with some saying it is impacting every facet of their life. Last year, Coos County reported eight deaths of people experiencing homelessness within a two month period. Tara Johnson is the executive director of the Devereux Center, a local homeless shelter. She joins us to share what is happening in the community and what she is seeing at her shelter.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you this whole week from Coos Bay. Before the break, we talked about the housing shortage here, and what it could take to fill it in. We turn now to one of the results of a lack of housing: homelessness. Tara Johnson is the executive director of the Devereux Center, which provides support services for people experiencing homelessness, and also manages a low barrier shelter here. Tara, thanks very much for joining us.
Tara Johnson: Thank you.
Miller: Can we start with some numbers? Do you have a ballpark sense for how many people are homeless in this region right now?
Johnson: So it’s a tough thing to identify every person who’s homeless. But we anticipate that in the Coos Bay/North Bend area, there’s probably 800, and perhaps as many as 12-1500 in the county.
Miller: Have you seen an increase in people seeking your services in the last couple of years?
Johnson: We’ve seen a slow increase, not a dramatic increase. However, I anticipate that increase to start rolling about now.
Johnson: Because the eviction moratorium that was enacted because of COVID has come to an end, and people who didn’t have the skills to do the steps necessary to prevent those evictions, now is about d-day.
Miller: That moratorium was extended and extended and extended, and it was complicated, but some of the provisions were that you had to actually start to seek help by a certain time, that time has passed. You do know that some people just didn’t even get their names on the list?
Johnson: Yes, because a lot of times people who struggle with low income don’t have the skills to be able to seek out that help, or the ability to complete the paperwork that sometimes seems complicated and challenging.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the age range that you see right now in terms of homelessness?
Johnson: We see more families than we did previously, and we have seen a significant increase in people over the age of 55.
Miller: How do you explain that?
Johnson: Families don’t support elderly people the way they used to, I think is part of it. There’s a lot of generational poverty. So people who maybe would normally want to help their elderly parents don’t have the housing to be able to do that. They don’t know how to navigate the system to be able to add someone to their lease, or they didn’t add them to their lease and then they all got evicted.
As well, more and more people are struggling with health issues that aren’t severe enough to get them into a nursing home, but they’re too severe to be able to just manage on their own. So then they don’t pay their bills, they have maybe slight dementia issues, they get evicted, and they don’t have anywhere to go.
Miller: So that’s an older population of homeless or potentially homeless people. What are other reasons for younger populations that you see over and over, in terms of what leads people in this area to become homeless?
Johnson: So obviously addiction is an issue. Mental illness is a huge issue. There, people are like “which came first, the chicken or the egg? The addiction, or the mental illness?” At this point, in my world, it doesn’t matter. That’s where they’re at.
And then lack of any significant numbers of permanent supportive housing. The state mental hospital, in all honesty, has failed our community, probably the state overall, but specifically our community.
Miller: How have they failed you?
Johnson: The state hospital is only taking new patients through the criminal aspects of the judicial system. So for my clients that haven’t done anything wrong but need mental health support, they can’t get to the state hospital. I signed a two party commitment a couple of weeks ago for a client. There’s no room for him at our psychiatric unit here at Bay Area Hospital. So he has no avenue to get to any sort of mental health support. Previously, our psychiatric unit here was about half full of people who should have been, and who would have previous to the last couple of years, been at the state hospital. So that creates an inability to care locally for other people who would normally be at a state level, who are now here. And maybe they only need to be there for a few weeks, but we had people who were there for the entire six months of their commitment here in Coos Bay in the hospital, instead of at the state hospital.
Miller: If there’s no bed for somebody there, and there aren’t enough behavioral health or mental health service here, what options are there for the people you’re talking about?
Johnson: They live on the street. They go to the Devereux Center. And we do the best we can to care for them, but we’re not a hospital. We provide for their basic needs. Some of them are in Coalbank Village, our temporary shelter project. But even there, we’re not equipped to handle somebody who has moderate to acute mental health issues. There is nothing here. Nothing. So then they just live on the streets.
And then people get angry because you have somebody who doesn’t understand social boundaries and social etiquette misbehaving in public, whatever that looks like. Sometimes it’s obscene, and sometimes it’s just an inconvenience. So then society is getting more angry because why isn’t something being done? Why can’t you force them? Well first of all, Oregon has the strictest rules on someone being a danger to themselves or others, and the highest barrier to establish that. Involuntary commitment is next to impossible here. So if someone’s in the street and law enforcement comes, but by the time law enforcement gets there they’re out of the street, then there’s no danger to themselves any longer. Or even by the time you get them to the hospital, there’s no longer a danger to themselves because they’re not in the street. But they were.
So those are our ongoing struggles that we as a state have. But we also need dual diagnosis facilities. Dual diagnosis is somebody who has co-occurring mental health and substance use issues, because again, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well again, I say it doesn’t matter. Somebody with those two problems combined and rolled into one needs help. There’s only one hospital or one facility in Oregon, in Portland, that will take somebody with a dual diagnosis issue.
Miller: I want to go back to one of the things you mentioned, because it seems important here, that people walking around in Coos Bay, they may see that person who, as you’re noting, should be getting probably in person, inpatient care, but can’t because it doesn’t exist. And that person or those people get frustrated. How does that affect the work that you do, or the work you’re trying to do at the Devereux Center?
Johnson: So I have some really amazing supporters who believe that we are doing valuable work, no matter what others in the community say. But I have others in the community that think I should be gone, that the Center should be shut down, that if the center wasn’t there there would be no homeless people in our community.
Miller: That you’re either a magnet, or you’re enabling the kind of behavior that they see as destroying the fabric of the community, enabling people to have untreated mental illness on the street. What is your response?
Johnson: Well, my response is that over 40% of our clients have lived in Coos County their entire lives, and an even greater number have lived in Coos County for 5 to 10 years.
Miller: Oh, specifically that would be the response to the magnet point. It’s not just Coos Bay where people say that, we hear that all the time in Portland, that Portland is a gigantic magnet for people from the West Coast or anywhere else. You’re saying that the numbers don’t bear that out here.
Johnson: So the number that we see the most is people that have just come here, they came looking for a job. They came with a family member, and then there was a dispute among the family members. I will say that since Measure 110 passed, that’s a whole different story, there are people who are coming to Oregon simply because of our decriminalization of substances.
Miller: You’ve heard people say “I was in California or Idaho or wherever, and I have come to Coos Bay because I’m not going to get arrested for a small amount of meth possession?” People have said that to you?
Johnson: Yes. Not a lot. Most people aren’t going to admit it. But people have told me that they’re like, “hey, I can do what I want here, it’s not against the law.”
Miller: So that’s a kind of a magnet, some data point, anecdotal or not, about the effect of Measure 110. Where else do you see the effects of Measure 110?
Johnson: So law enforcement here, I think, is reluctant to write a $100 ticket for something that isn’t going to carry any weight. So a lot of people have decided that “I can use more frequently, or I can always keep it on my person,” whereas before I think they were a little more discreet about it. So that’s another downside.
The flip of the coin is that money is coming into our community, the BHRN money, and I don’t remember what all those letters stand for, but it’s behavioral health money that’s coming into our community. And that money hasn’t fully been released yet. People know that it’s coming, but I don’t know that they’ve seen it. So in theory, that will be a positive, that there will be more access to treatment, and a 24 hour crisis team for people to meet with someone who’s recently overdosed or in a substance use disorder issue.
Miller: You’re outlining so many overlapping issues. Where do you start in terms of the policy changes that would be most helpful?
Johnson: Wow. I really think that the biggest policy change could be changing the level of involuntary commitment for mental health.
Miller: Lowering the bar, in other words. Making it easier for loved ones, or people in certain judicial areas, to actually say “for your safety or for the safety of the people around you, even if you don’t want to go to an inpatient psychiatric unit, we’re going to force you to do so”?
Johnson: Yeah. And it hurts me to say that, because I have people that I love dearly that I work with every day. But I know they could be so much more, and they wouldn’t be stuck in this cycle of spinning out and doing things that are inappropriate and causing problems to the community, causing problems for themselves. Some of them have 10, 20 outstanding tickets that they’re never gonna get taken care of, because they don’t have the mental capacity.
However, if they were able to go to an inpatient treatment program, be stabilized, be discharged with a plan, and then enter into some supportive housing, then I think they could begin to get their life back on track. But right now, that isn’t an option.
Miller: What you’re talking about there seems to be maybe the most challenging subset of the population of people who are homeless. But there are other people who aren’t dealing with schizophrenia, but they just can’t afford rent.
Johnson: Much of the problem with the senior citizen population that I was referring to earlier is that many of them are getting $800 a month to live on. Well last time I checked, there’s absolutely nothing that anybody could rent. And here, our waitlist for Section 8 vouchers is very long, sometimes upwards of two years. Then, if you get a voucher, you still can’t find anywhere. So you can’t afford to live independently. You may have issues with your credit, etc., that make it hard to get into any Section 8 housing because they’re looking for the best candidate. So that’s a whole other issue to unravel.
I don’t know that just throwing more money at any problem is going to solve it. I think the money needs to go very strategically. But clearly, having greater housing stock and subsequently a shorter Section 8 voucher list and more landlords that would take it would all help with part of the problem too.
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