For Zachary Pierce, a resident of Corvallis, Oregon, who has been homeless for more than a decade, this will be the first winter he spends with a roof over his head. Others, however, are often not so fortunate.
Breaking out of the seemingly endless cycle of roaming, Pierce says, is something much easier said than done, especially with the sweeps the Town of Corvallis has been doing.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, sweeps are defined as “the forcible dissolution of homeless settlements on public property and the removal of both the homeless and their property from that area.”
“100% of [houseless] people don’t even know who the commissioners or the mayor are, you know, all they know is that their enemy is [Corvallis] Parks and recreation and [Oregon Department of Transportation]”Pierce said.” They have to move everything everywhere. “
For Pierce and many others like him, one of the only places they can live is the skate park south of downtown Corvallis.
“These are really considered, in my opinion, to be concentration camps,” Pierce said. “You have the BMX track, you know, the meadows and the other skate park. And no one is allowed to camp anywhere else. So the police know exactly where everyone is… it’s like a multi-crab pot. It is something tragic; when one crab tries to get out of this pot, the other pulls it down.
There are other options for spending the night, such as the Corvallis Men’s Shelter, which is less than a mile and a half from where Pierce was camping. However, according to Pierce, few homeless people want to go.
” There is [Corvallis Housing First] and there is the church, but no one really knows [about them] because they’re never going to give us a straight answer, so it becomes a ping-pong effect, ”Pierce said. “They’re so disconnected every moment, or they’ll send you somewhere, ‘Oh, come down here and take this.’ We could spend half a day doing that. And they’ll say, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ Everyone is in disarray.
While COVID-19 has certainly done its fair share of damage to the world at large, according to Pierce, it has at least forced the community to focus on people like him.
“COVID-19 is saving people’s lives right now,” Pierce said. “If that didn’t work, the city would let us all die. COVID-19[feminine[makes them think], ‘Oh wait, we have a renewed responsibility, because I have to watch out for these people.’ ”
The Corvallis Men’s Shelter, located at 211 SE Chapman Pl., Is now open year round, as opposed to three out of four seasons due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“[There’s been] no longer needed, ”said Moksha Mokma, a worker at the shelter. “We are open 12 months a year. Before, we weren’t open in winter… The homeless community is doing pretty well with vaccines. I would say, based on my limited knowledge, people willing to and people unwilling to [get the vaccine] are pretty much the same as everyone else.
When the shelter opens for the night, workers feed and shelter up to 50 men per night, as well as breakfast the next morning. Mokma works during the day, when the shelter functions as a hygiene center.
“The hygiene center is open to anyone in the community who needs [it]”Mokma said.” People may be living in their van, people’s water can be turned off, they have to come in and take a shower. People may not have enough clothes for their child or for themselves- People come for extra meals.
Besides the short term needs, Mokma and the organization also cater for the long term needs.
“Throughout the day, I do anything from helping people to just use their services, which range from showers to food to clothes,” Mokma said. “We also offer collaborative care here: we connect clients with other social workers to help them find permanent housing. We help them find access to services that they might have access to, but cannot access, because they need an address or a social worker, or mental health help. So we connect them to what we call collaborative care – we try to connect them to the services they need. “
Some homeless people prefer to be helped by their own networks. One of those people is Alvin Freer, who allows individuals to get into his motorhome to warm up and get what they need.
“I help the homeless,” Freer said. “You know, I let them in at any time of the night they need, to warm up. I give them food. I give them blankets. I give them everything they need to do their thing.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends that homeless camp sweeps be postponed because COVID-19 continues to be a problem, stating: “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who live homeless or in camps to stay where they are. “
However, the Town of Corvallis continues to carry out these sweeps, according to Corvallis Parks and Recreation Director Meredith Petit.
“The City continues to post and clean up illegal campsites located on City property,” said Petit. “Most of the sites on city properties are in city parks. Parks and Recreation staff lead the process of posting and cleaning these sites. the [Corvallis Police Department] post campsites and enforce the law as needed. Parks staff clean campsites after posting. By state law, the City is required to give a minimum of 72 hours between the time of posting and cleaning. As a rule, we allow one week, by staff availability.
Despite the sweeping process continuing, the town of Corvallis has also made some changes to how sweeps work due to COVID-19.
“At this time, the city is advising Benton County Health of the camp clean-up ahead of the postings,” said Petit. “This gives Benton County Health the ability to do wellness or COVID-19 checks before release dates if Benton County Health determines it is necessary. “
Pierce and Freer find it frustrating that taxpayer dollars are spent moving homeless camps during sweeps, not helping them.
“When they take our shelters away from us, man, it robs us of everything we were coming on, trying to get better,” Freer said. “And then it starts us up again; they keep us in a position where we cannot get up. We cannot do better for ourselves.