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Lincoln County Commissioner Bill Hall comments on Occupy Newport’s interest in helping the homeless

Bill Hall, Lincoln County Commissioner
Lincoln County photo

By Bill Hall, Lincoln County Commissioner:

After attending one GA (General Assembly of Occupy members) meeting, and reading the notes on another, I want to offer some information and thoughts.

I am sorry, but not surprised, to hear that there are people on the streets who think no one cares. That’s not true. I know too many people who do care and are giving of themselves in a variety of ways to agree with that statement. But do enough people care, and are enough people translating that caring into action? The answer to those questions is no.

That’s why I am thrilled to see the attention being brought to this issue by the Occupy movement, both locally and across the country. It’s important to address the symptoms—lives may depend on it—but Occupy gives me hope that we are finally going to tackle the underlying disease, economic injustice.

I would like to talk about my role and my mindset in approaching this issue. As I said, we are far from having enough people who care and are trying to make a difference. But I think it’s important that we acknowledge and celebrate some of the progress we have made. In the past few years, that includes 18 permanent units of housing for those who have been long-term homeless, six Project Homeless Connect events that have brought a whole menu of services to hundreds, the launch of 2-1-1 as a telephone and web-based service, the expansion of the school district’s homeless liaison program from one FTE position to five, and the opening of the warming center for the first time. I think we’ve also started to make some headway in public awareness of the issue. All this is good, but it is only a start. We’ve managed to push a very big boulder a little ways up the hill.

There seem to be a few misconceptions about the warming center. The building does have heat, and there are mattresses and blankets, but the heat isn’t turned on and the bedding isn’t brought out if there isn’t an official opening with trained volunteers on the premises. Operating as a warming center, rather than a shelter, avoids zoning issues (even though it’s county property we’re still subject to the city’s zoning regulations, including the rule that no more than five unrelated people can sleep under the same roof.)

Corvallis now has separate cold weather shelters for men and women. Those operate continuously from mid-November to mid-March. These evolved from a warming center similar to what we have now, as those operating it developed experience and resources.

I see myself as an advocate, an educator, a connector, and someone who can help leverage resources from time to time. I see ON being able to contribute in a variety of positive ways, including:

–Education and advocacy. Writing letters and emails, showing up at public meetings and the like is a huge boost. Even something as modest as the proposal for limited sleeping in vehicles is already generating negative reaction from a former Newport mayor who still maintains a residue of a followingt. The current mayor and council need to be persuaded this is an idea with a broad base of support.

–Supporting and building existing efforts. I’m glad to see the interest in volunteering at the warming center and providing food. The school district’s program is in need of volunteer help and donations. They do a great job of helping families who fall between the cracks of other programs. Even agencies that have been around for a long time like Food Share and Samaritan House are in a constant battle to find resources and meet needs. More people need to be made aware of these programs and encouraged to help them.

–Developing new services. I don’t want to discourage anything along these lines, but I think a yellow caution flag is justified. Researching the steps needed to expand the warming center into a winter (and eventually) year-round project; developing an information and resource center are a couple of ideas that already seem to have some momentum. Great! My plea would be to investigate these thoroughly, including issues like zoning, legal liabilities, insurance requirements, utilities, other operating costs, etc. One thing I’ve heard from people in need—the only thing worse than inadequate services or no services at all is to see a new service launched that raises hopes and expectations and then quickly vanishes. There are no guarantees in this world, but I think we owe nothing less to those we’re trying to help.

I’m ready to advise, support and advocate in any way I can. Thank you all for standing together to move that boulder.

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