Over the winter, The Dalles not only saw a significant increase in transients using an overnight shelter on very cold nights, but most were people who longtime volunteers had never seen before.
And now, with the city of Portland launching a new program of providing bus tickets to homeless people, city officials say The Dalles may need to prepare for an even bigger influx of transients.
The Dalles City Councilor Tim McGlothlin, who chairs a city ad hoc committee on homelessness that met Wednesday, said he was dubious of Portland’s contention that they are not seeking to foist the homeless problem on other cities.
He said Sherman County has sent transients to The Dalles, and Hood River also did at one point.
Kathy Bayer, who used to work with the state as a housing specialist, said they used to call that “Greyhound therapy.”
One local volunteer said non-local transients are already coming here. Word gets around about where services are, he said, and that has brought people to The Dalles.
That volunteer, Mike Kilkenny, is with St. Vincent de Paul, whose building at 315 W. Third St., hosts several programs that help the homeless. He called the building “ground zero” for the homeless problems in town.
The homeless population, and problems associated with it, have increased noticeably in the last year or two. Problems have included littering, aggressive behavior and defecating on nearby properties.
Due to the “huge influx” of homeless, Kilkenny said, the Warming Place, the shelter that opens on cold nights, actually reached its maximum capacity – 19 people — for the first time ever.
Then, transients realized that anyone over that limit would get a stay in a motel room, so they began jockeying in line in order to get a motel room, Kilkenny said.
“Nineteen homeless people sleeping butted up next to each other is a pretty stressful situation,” Kilkenny said. “It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite chaos.”
As the homeless population increases, the volunteer pool that does the most intensive work with them – staffing the Warming Place – is dwindling, and has for each of the last four years, said Chris Zukin.
Not only does it mean foregoing a night of sleep, but it is monitoring a chaotic environment and making tough decisions about drawing the line on bad behavior, Kilkenny said.
Kilkenny said a record amount of people, 26, have been banned from St. Vincent properties, and banishment only happens after five or six warnings.
Kilkenny said, “We’re this close to having chaos all the time.”
He said the man who was arrested for robbing a bank earlier this week had earlier that day been banned from St. Vincent’s for drinking.
The committee decided to pursue a local summit, with a goal of gathering as many involved parties as possible into one room to better coordinate efforts.
They are committed to finding solutions to homelessness, rather than just providing band-aid treatments.
Bayer said she felt that local agencies, businesses and other helping entities communicate less with each other than they used to.
Lisa Farquharson, director of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, noted The Dalles has double the average amount of non-profits for a town this size.
“We need to gather all the non-profits and basically take an inventory of their services, funding, and target population for their services. This would be done in hopes that we could make sure we aren’t duplicating, overlapping, or zapping businesses twice for support. This would also allow us to begin those better communications to each other in hopes that we truly meet the needs of our community,” Farquharson said.
Bayer said in her work with the homeless, she felt the biggest service lacking was a local detox facility. She said mental health services are more available than drug and alcohol services.
Detoxing is a complicated medical matter. Heroin is horrible to come off of, meth is easier, and sobering up for heavy drinkers can actually be fatal, she said, so detox programs carry a liability.
Now, jail is a de facto detox, after inmates have been medically cleared at the hospital.
The introduction of coordinated care organizations in Oregon, resulted in fewer locations for treatment for poor people on government-provided health insurance, she said.
She also said another pressing need was for a person who is knowledgeable about local systems and what they provided, who would work directly with the homeless and take them to services.
“Outreach is critical,” she said.
It’s not enough to just tell them services are available, she said, because they simply won’t take the initiative. The only option, in her experience, was to physically take them there. “If not, you’re just herding cats,” she said.
Zukin said a shelter in Hood River has a system like that.
McGlothlin also wants to use $10,000 to $20,000 in city funds – perhaps from transient room tax funds or enterprise funds — to build restrooms, since transients cause problems by defecating on local properties. He said they have no choice but to do so, and bathrooms would alleviate the problem.
He suggested two possible locations on the far eastern end of the property with the outdoor swimming pool on it, with both sites closer to the foot bridge over Mill Creek.
Phil Lewis, executive director of the Northern Wasco County Parks and Recreation District, said one issue was a rule that parks properties are closed after dusk. He said that rule would have to be revisited. He said he preferred a more visible location for any bathrooms.
McGlothlin is also working with the school district on the possibility of getting six lockers from the Chenowith Middle School so transients can store their belongings.
That was a request transients brought up to him when he spoke to them, he said.
He said some transients would not use the local warming shelter, even on sub-freezing nights, because they didn’t want to leave their belongings and have it “raided” while they were gone.
“If we just did that, it would make their lives so much better,” McGlothlin said.
A question arose of where to locate the lockers. Kilkenny said St. Vincent’s is off limits from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the lockers needed to be in a place accessible 24/7, and it also raised security issues.