Housing debate: St. Edward’s offers one small solution to homelesness

May 2018 Posted in Community

image2By Melissa Wagoner

“We all know that it’s a scary topic,” City Councilor Dana Smith recently said of the homeless problem in Silverton. “And there is a pervasive belief that by helping people you are inviting more people.”

But an invitation is just what Smith is hoping to issue – not to the homeless –
to the public at large.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation – it’s going to require the community,” Sarah White, executive director of the newly formed, Silverton Sheltering Services – an offshoot of Silverton Area Warming Shelter – said. “Is it not our job as a community to take care of people who are homeless?”

The question is one Mayor Kyle Palmer has also pondered. It is the reason he eventually asked the Silverton City Council to support his appointment of a Homeless and Housing Taskforce last summer.

“After some meetings I attended last spring/summer with homeless advocates in our community, I was both ashamed of how little I was aware of the issue in our own community, and convinced that it was time for us to get in front of the issue rather than try to address solutions after it became something that was more widespread,” Palmer said.

That taskforce is comprised of representatives from the council, SACA, Marion County, the Silver Falls School District and Silverton Sheltering Services, as well as the chief of police, Palmer himself and members of the community.

“I had difficulty verbalizing exactly what my hope was, but in short, it was that an existing organization, new organization, or organic combination of multiple organizations would rise to the level of providing a collective approach to services that are already available in Silverton, and that may not currently be available,” Palmer explained.

Smith, a councilor for the past four years, said that it has long been a goal of the council to address the lack of affordable housing in Silverton, but more recently the issue gained urgency and expanded to include the homeless.

“[T]hose without homes got to be more visible and then people were coming to the City Council asking us to do something,” she said. “Last summer we finally started to do something.”

One of the initial steps Smith took was to look at solutions utilized in Portland. One of those was the Kenton Women’s Village, a group of 14 sleeping pods created by a partnership of dozens of organizations as well as the city government.

“Kenton’s Women’s Village really spoke to me because it’s in a residential neighborhood,” Smith said.

In early December, with the women’s village still in her thoughts, Smith received an invitation from Silverton resident and Planning Commissioner Chris Mayou to a lunch with 13 other women.

“I invited folks to a meeting to discuss how ‘tiny homes’ might be one way to help our unhoused neighbors,” Mayou said. “Amazingly, one of the women who attended was Shana McCauley, the vicar of St. Edward’s Episcopal Church.”

Reverend McCauley, who has led St. Edward’s for the past nine years, said that her church has long looked for a way to make a difference in its community, but as a small congregation with little in the way of funds, they hadn’t yet found their niche. During the luncheon that day, while Smith spoke about the Kenton Village, McCauley had an epiphany.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a church and a ton of space,’” Reverend McCauley recalled.

“We learned that the church had been discussing the same thing since 2016 and had space for providing individual shelters,” Mayou said. “What they needed was help to make it happen. We were energized and decided that we would be that help.”

Mayou, Smith and Smith’s husband Victor Madge, have a background in building construction and worked out an initial sketch of four eight-foot by eight-foot cottages with a small courtyard between. They planned to install these in a corner of the St. Edward’s parking lot.

“We’re talking about four units and four beds,” McCauley said.

The buildings would not be plumbed – occupants would have access to a small kitchenette and bathrooms inside the church – and would be purely transitional housing. Even so, the construction would require a change to the municipal code.

“The private group working on that asked the council to consider language changes to our municipal code that would allow any religious institution to use temporary housing options such as the one proposed by St. Edwards,” Palmer explained.

Smith was quick to add that all projects of this type would still be considered conditional and as such would be subject to public approval – which is why a public meeting was held on April 19 at the parish hall.

More than 100 members of the community attended, and while McCauley said the majority of the comments were positive, there were ,any in the audience who were not in favor of the proposal.

The criticism came as a surprise to Smith and McCauley – who had, up to then, received only positive feedback both from the task force and the St. Edward’s parish.

“I brought the proposal to the task force and everybody just went, ‘Well, that’s cool,” Smith said. “We unanimously voted to recommend that sort of approach to City Council.”

Similarly, McCauley said, “Every time I go back to [the board of St. Edward’s] to say, ‘What do you think?’ they say, ‘Let’s go bigger. How can we do more?’”

Those reactions did not prepare the group for the opposition they faced both at the meeting and across social media afterward.

“It has lit a fire in this community,” McCauley said.

One of those opposed is Marli Brown, who has lived across the street from the church for more than 40 years.

“I’m just really nervous about it,” she said. “I just think it should be 24/7 supervision.”

Although there is not a plan in place to offer that level of oversight thus far, McCauley is planning to maintain a high level of control over both the use of the cottages and who would occupy them.

“It will just be single women,” McCauley said. “We’ll make a covenant with them about behavior. Once they’re here we’ve seen other models where people will make weekly goals.”

Addressing worries by some residents about a possible “encampment” including tents and tarps, McCauley clarified, “We are still operating a church and don’t want tarps or things that are destructive to the environment.” 

“We want the community to know that we want it to be an enhancement to the community and we want it to be successful,” White added. “We don’t want a large, messy homeless encampment.”

In order to keep things small the committee rejected the idea of housing families, opting instead to choose single females as the demographic to help.

“There are not a lot of services for single women without children,” White explained. “You are more likely to be the victim of interpersonal violence,”

Both McCauley and White stress, however, that they will not be acting as a domestic violence shelter.

“We’ve been really clear all along – that’s not something we can handle,” McCauley said.

Although plans are stalled as the church waits for city council consideration of a change to the municipal code, the hope is to be up and running before winter.

“When we operate the warming shelter in the winter the hardest part is when we have to close the doors – knowing that they would have no place to go,” White said. “It’s an excruciating thing
in the winter.”

White, who works closely with the homeless population and the aid organizations that serve them, said Silverton Area Community Aid has served 30 separate homeless households since the start of 2018.

McCauley has a personal understanding of the situation. She and her husband, both employed in the non-profit sector, lost their jobs in 2008 when the market crashed.

“I was pregnant,” she said. “We ended up living with family but we were technically homeless for a year and a half.”

Unfortunately, McCauley’s story is not unique. Smith and her husband also spent six months bouncing around between the houses of friends and – although never technically without a home – White says as a young child she was extremely poor.

“It feels like a broader cultural issue that we’re seeing,” White said. “I just think we see this as a really good first step.”

Not everyone agrees, which is evidenced by the pink “Say NO to homeless encampment” signs dotting the St, Edward’s neighborhood.

McCauley is not worried. “The opponents are really vocal and loud,” she said. “But we’re hearing way more positive.”

One of the supporters is 11-year-old Karis Coleman, whose house is flanked by pink signs.

In a room rife with tension and fear – she spoke, “My name is Karis. I live in this neighborhood. I don’t know a lot of you, but I’m not afraid of you. So why should I be afraid of them?”

She shouldn’t, according to McCauley.

“These are just people who are on hard times,” she said. “We are absolutely all in this together.”

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