For nearly 20 years, the Baldock Rest Area on Interstate 5 near Wilsonville served as a home for people without one. By 2010, they numbered in the hundreds and were divided into two distinct populations. The chronically homeless lived on one side of the freeway and occupied the space the majority of the time. Across the freeway, the working poor and homeless families slept in their cars at the rest area each night, leaving during the day to go to work, school and other activities.
A group of Oregon attorneys who work on behalf of the homeless say they frequently encounter people with previously stable lives who have experienced a snowball effect that led to homelessness. Many lost their jobs because of the recession and have been struggling to recover ever since. Most often, medical bills set off the avalanche that buried them in financial debt and led them to lose their homes. One Baldock Rest Area resident was a former CPA who was fluent in several languages. Forced into homelessness by medical bills for cancer, she drove to chemotherapy appointments and then back to the rest area to recover in her car.
The economic recession has emphasized just how dramatically the face of homelessness has changed. That population includes more families with young children, more young adults, more people who have a job but can’t afford housing and more military veterans. The situation has further galvanized legal advocates, many long focused on improving resources for homeless people. It also has affected the way state agencies and municipalities address the issue in communities throughout Oregon.
As an example, when the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) considered how to best handle the situation at the Baldock Rest Area, it reached beyond the traditional method of simply calling law enforcement officers to roust people out. Instead, it partnered with advocates for homeless people, social services agencies, faith-based organizations, shelters and other community organizations to help those living at the rest area transition to housing and get other essential services. The sea change in this approach led to noteworthy results.
The Baldock Community
While most “Baldockeans,” as they were dubbed, were white, single adults and couples without children, the presence of homeless families had become so institutionalized by 2010 that a school bus regularly stopped there. The stark realities of people living at the rest area are documented in a case study published by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) at Portland State University.
The rest area is attractive to homeless people because of features such as running water, toilets, quiet places to park, tree-shaded areas and picnic tables. Its proximity to Portland, jobs and services add to its appeal. The researchers surveyed some of the people living at the rest area and gathered the following stories, with names changed to protect confidentiality:
In contrast, homeless people living at the rest area also created several problems for law enforcement officials. Some residents panhandled near the rest rooms, making visitors feel unsafe. Others had dogs and did not clean up after them, and still others were involved in fights. Prostitution and drug dealing — often involving truck drivers — were among the 126 problem calls the Oregon State Police received between May and October of 2009.
Life Along the I-5 Corridor
When pushed out of Portland and its suburbs, many homeless people relocate to other rural areas or major cities along the I-5 corridor in pursuit of opportunities. Statewide statistics show that in 2011, towns such as Brownsville in Linn County and Douglas County’s Elkton were among the rural areas with the highest percentage of homeless students. A recent project conducted by students at Southern Oregon University included several interviews with homeless young adults who were staying in Ashland at the time. These individuals frequently drift along I-5 between northern California and Washington, according to the project.
Medford currently has the second highest population of homeless people in the state, and is among the cities with the highest populations of homeless students. Medford attorney Jamie Hazlett is a board member for the Maslow Project, a nonprofit that provides critical support for homeless youth in Jackson County. Hazlett often litigates many of the cases for “prohibitive camping” that Maslow Project youth frequently are cited for.
“Every city has a different ordinance about this, and Portland’s is probably the most constitutional. Ours in Medford is ridiculous and very restrictive in regards to travel. People shouldn’t be cited for being homeless. It’s an economic issue,” she says.
Medford is required to post a notice that gives a homeless person camping at a site the opportunity to go somewhere else to seek shelter, and that notice is supposed to include a list of available shelters and other resources, according to Hazlett. “The notices are never posted here locally,” she says.
The Maslow Project is attempting to educate officials about the need for the notices, along with other gaps in the safety net for homeless youth. For example, Medford doesn’t have shelters specifically for people younger than 18, though one will allow a young adult to stay for 72 hours if they have parental permission.
“Few of these kids have parents in their life,” Hazlett notes. “Kids who are under 18 are in this kind of legal limbo. They can’t stay in the adult shelters, so they are getting a lot of citations for prohibitive camping. Once these tickets start piling up, the kids feel like it’s insurmountable because they could get a summons and go to jail and then get into trouble. It really is discouraging for them.”
The ways other cities along the I-5 corridor address the issue of homelessness is almost as varied as the cities themselves. Ashland’s city council has formed a homelessness steering committee to explore solutions. The city of Eugene has stopped destroying homeless camps after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last September that such actions are unconstitutional. The city is now drafting legal and procedural guidelines for what to do with them, according to theRegister-Guard.
The Corvallis Gazette-Times reported in February that Benton County has made solid gains three years into its 10-year strategy to combat homelessness. These gains include a medical respite program, more affordable housing, two part-time caseworkers to help homeless people find resources, improved services and shelter for women who have suffered domestic violence, and an information line people can call to learn about resources. The county is also exploring rent subsidies, a permanent cold-weather shelter and localized addiction services. The Gazette-Times reported in March that law enforcement dismantled a homeless camp just east of town, where about 40 transients were living amid a cache of stolen items, many of which had been taken from Oregon State University students, and mounds of garbage.
In Salem, the Statesman Journal reported, the municipal court docket for misdemeanor criminal cases was paralyzed because many of them involved homeless people who failed to show up for court. A three-part series recently published in the paper details how crimes committed by homeless people impact the court, and how the legal community and advocates for the homeless are attempting to solve the problem.
One solution, highlighted in the series’ third part, is a court dedicated specifically to crimes committed by homeless people, such as Multnomah County’s community court in Bud Clark Commons, a homeless shelter. As the Statesman Journal reported, it’s believed to be the first homeless court in the country and metes out a mixture of support and punishment to the defendants.
One Step Away from Homelessness
Monica Goracke, regional director of the Oregon Law Center’s Portland office, says that her office’s frequent collaboration with Legal Aid Services of Oregon dramatically illustrates the recession’s snowball effect in which people fall into poverty and a life on the streets.
“The poor economy means that incidents of domestic violence are rising, and that’s a major cause of homelessness,” she says. “Housing is a major issue and many people are one step away from homelessness because they are getting evicted for asking for repairs. Others have trouble getting income or benefits.”
The city of Portland’s 2011 “Point-In-Time Count of Homelessness in Portland/Multnomah County, Oregon,” sponsored by the Portland Housing Bureau, the One Night Shelter Count and Multnomah County, identified 2,727 people who were “literally homeless” — sleeping in an emergency shelter, vouchered into a motel, or unsheltered — on the night of January 26 of that year. That number included 1,718 people who were unsheltered (sleeping outside, in a vehicle or abandoned building) and 1,009 people who were sleeping in an emergency shelter or vouchered into a motel. An additional 1,928 people were sleeping in transitional housing on the night of the count, bringing the total homeless count to 4,655.
“Since I started reading the numbers in 2005, they seem to steadily rise,” Goracke says. “There was a big jump between 2007 and 2009, and we’ve seen a 35 percent increase in the numbers of families with children who are homeless since 2009. These are people who are in a car, under a bridge or in an empty building. That’s not even the people who are in shelters.”
Goracke says she regularly encounters clients who are homeless because of disabilities and medical bills, including a man who broke his arm and therefore couldn’t work or pay his medical bills. She says Portland and other cities are more focused on helping homeless people than in the past, though she is concerned about municipal ordinances that impact homeless people, such as those related to camping and hanging out on sidewalks.
“There are a lot of competing interests for public space and that is where the conflict arises because people who are homeless don’t have a private space to be in, so they’re doing more in public than people who have homes are,” she says. “Some cities use the police to keep homeless people out of sight, and the question then becomes, ‘Where are they supposed to go?’ ”
Tri-county Area Paves the Way for Solutions
Portland-area municipalities seem to be taking the lead on addressing that very question, and it’s becoming increasingly clear the successful solutions lie in advocates, agencies and the homeless people themselves working together — as ODOT ultimately found at the Baldock rest area.
The Baldock Restoration Project began in January 2010 when ODOT partnered with the Oregon Travel Information Council, public and faith-based social services agencies and law enforcement and legal aid agencies to create the Baldock Restoration Group. The group’s goals were to humanely relocate residents and restore the rest area to its intended purpose.
Goracke was part of the Baldock Restoration Group and praises the interagency approach that went into addressing the situation. When the project began, 109 people were documented as residing at the rest area, some of whom had been there for nearly two decades. About 40 were chronically homeless and lived at Baldock around the clock, forming a self-regulating community with shared meals, organized shopping expeditions, and delineated roles and responsibilities, according to the case study. The remaining people were “situationally” homeless and spent the night there on a regular or occasional basis.
By May 1, 2010, the longstanding community was gone and more than 60 percent of the households had secured housing through assistance provided by the Baldock Restoration Group members. The agencies that reported on the project’s results credited interagency cooperation and incentives for the homeless people as critical factors in this success. Goracke says clearly set goals, financial support from local and state jurisdictions, and trust were essential.
“The project participants built trust with each other, which allowed them to depart from traditional roles and bureaucratic boundaries. That helped gain the trust of homeless individuals living at the rest area,” she says.
Goracke adds that the Baldock Restoration Project serves as a model, not just statewide but nationally. The Federal Highway Administration in May sponsored a webinar about the Baldock case study, and the agency specially invited homelessness advocates, social services agencies and social justice groups, law enforcement personnel and legal aid advocates to “help promote a holistic conversation about this work.”
Lawyers, in particular, have a key role to play in helping the homeless population, she notes.
“Attorneys can advocate for more affordable housing and can work to preserve the affordable housing that now exists in our communities,” Goracke says. “Attorneys can represent the legal needs of homeless people and people at risk of homelessness in a wide assortment of legal matters that have the potential to either end their clients’ homelessness or reduce the risk that their clients will become homeless.”
Efforts also are underway in Oregon to establish a Homeless Bill of Rights that would “ensure that all people, regardless of housing status, are entitled to their rights to the use of public space, equal treatment by police and government, privacy of property, vote and not be discriminated against in employment and health care.” The campaign is being led by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) and partners such as Right 2 Survive/Right 2 Dream Too, Street Roots, Sisters of the Road Café and Dignity Village.
Rhode Island became the first state to pass such a bill last June, and similar campaigns are underway in California and Massachusetts. The Oregon campaign leaders plan to present the bill to the 2014 Legislature and have outlined the following goals for the legislation:
Legal advocacy on behalf of homeless people with disabilities, both physical and mental, is a key priority for Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon (DRO). Joondeph notes how intertwined disability and homelessness often are.
“There are a lot of folks in our legal community who have been involved, and I and others in our office have been involved in a variety of issues that impact homeless people,” he says.
Those advocacy efforts include a settlement with the city of Portland and the Oregon Department of Justice to improve police training about how to interact with homeless people who have mental health issues. DRO has been involved in the debate over Portland’s “sit/lie” ordinance as it relates to clearing the sidewalks for people with disabilities and advocating for more mental health services to help prevent people from becoming homeless.
In addition, DRO successfully advocated to ensure that the new Coordinated Care Organizations established as part of Oregon’s health-care reform will use statewide metrics to measure the availability of mental health services and levels of homelessness in their respective communities. The outcome-based incentives in mental health and chemical dependency services that are part of the Oregon Health Plan include the requirement that CCOs show how their services are affecting homelessness, Joondeph says.
“As housing supports get folded into CCOs as planned, the use of a housing-first strategy should, if the evidence is right, expand for those in coverage. Outside of Medicaid, the private health policies sold through Cover Oregon must all have mental health and chemical dependency coverage (at parity with physical health coverage), making continuing treatment affordable for those who maintain or return to work,” he says.
“All of these are pieces of the puzzle in which legal advocates are very much involved in trying to leverage more resources, and have them provided in constructive manners rather than punitive or expensive, regressive ways,” such as building more prison space, Joondeph notes. “This is a period of significant change in how we look at public services for homeless people and how we’re funding them.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2013 Melody Finnemore