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Medford homeless project seen as model for Coos Bay

COOS BAY — Coos Bay city officials are studying a homeless campground run by Rogue Retreat in Medford as a way to help homeless people in their city.

At a City Council work session Tuesday, leaders from the Nancy Devereux Center shared a proposal they say could be the next step in helping the city’s homeless residents: A staffed, referral-only community campground.

The proposal asks the council to allow the center to use a piece of city property for the campground, as well as set up water, electricity and possibly sewer service to the site. Operations would start with 12 managed campsites, and increase every three months, if successful, to up to 72 campsites at most.

“We would provide 24-7 on-site security. Our admission would only be through the Devereux Center, with referrals from law enforcement and community partners,” said Tara Johnson, the center’s director. “We would provide on-site case management, and our clients would be required to participate in that case management.”

After-hours admission wouldn’t be allowed, and residents would be required to commit to community expectations like remaining nonviolent and a prohibition on drugs and alcohol.

Council members were supportive of the idea, but raised concerns about the proposed location. At the end of Fulton Avenue at the site of the city’s former wastewater treatment plant, the space is both near a bay access point and adjacent to the bay on one side.

“The only thing about the location is that I know that’s utilized a lot by locals and tourists who access the bay for different activities, whether that’s clamming or whatever it may be,” Mayor Joe Benetti said during Tuesday’s work session. “And so that would prohibit that activity, and I think that we would have some pushback on that. So I would like to find a place that would be more accommodating, maybe.”

Councilor Stephanie Kilmer shared those concerns about the nearby waterfront access point, and mentioned the site’s exposure to wind from the bay.

“There’s a variety of issues I see with that site,” Kilmer said. “It is exposed to the elements almost every day of the year just because of where it’s located.”

“I think we have to look for a better location,” she added.

Johnson told the council the Devereux Center picked the site for the proposal because it’s not in the middle of a neighborhood, it’s already fully fenced to provide a limited access point and is relatively close to the shower and laundry resources at the center. Plus, she wasn’t able to find any other suitable city-owned properties, she said.

“Again, I’m not set on any location, I’m set on doing it,” Johnson said. “If we can find a different location, a better location, great. I just have not yet been able to.”

Councilor Drew Farmer held a different perspective than most others on the council, saying the proposed site has benefits.

“I do like that site, I would feel that there’s a way we could make an access point for the community down to the area that we do use,” Farmer said. “It’s a lot easier to establish a controlled point of entry (to the campground) at that location.”

Councilors Carmen Matthews and Phil Marler expressed support for the project, but said another location might be a better fit.

“I’d like to see this council do everything in our power to help you move this project along. It’s a great idea. I’m not totally sold on it either,” Marler told Johnson. “One of my bigger concerns is the elevation that it sits at. If we have a natural disaster, if there’s a flood or a tsunami or an earthquake, those are going to be the first people in peril.”

Still, finding another location could be a challenge.

“Currently, we don’t own other properties, really, that are suitable for this,” City Manager Roger Craddock told the council.

Instead, Craddock said city staff would look into state grants that might allow the city to purchase a piece of industrial property for the site, and come back to the council with options for making it work.

Councilors asked that the plan go through the city’s homeless workgroup, which has been on hold since the pandemic began. That could happen as soon as January, and Johnson hopes the campsite could be up and running by April.

“I don’t think there’s anyone on this council that doesn’t want this to happen. I think this is one step out of others that need to happen,” Benetti said Tuesday.

The idea isn’t a new one: Officials in Medford established a similar campground in July, and have already seen some successes. Johnson said she’s toured that campground, and has been using it to model the Devereux Center’s proposal for Coos Bay.

Using Medford as a model

In Medford, the campground is operated by Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit that also operates several group housing, rent subsidy and tiny home programs for individuals facing housing challenges.

The campground started over the summer in response to an increasing number of people camping along the Bear Creek Greenway, and the need for those individuals to have a place to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When they’re out there along the Greenway or wherever they may be, they didn’t have that sense of security,” Justin Hon, who manages the campground, said in an interview Tuesday.

To live in the campground, people have to be referred by Medford’s Livability Team, a group of police officers and city staff who help resolve quality of life problems and housing challenges. After committing to a few community rules, residents receive a tent site and safe place to store their belongings.

Then, they meet with a case manager, who works with residents to navigate whatever barriers an individual might be facing. Those can be different for everybody, but Hon said it could include waiting for a housing benefit payment, accessing addiction treatment or finding mental health services.

The important part is meeting residents where they’re at, Hon said.

“You don’t want to overwhelm them, you don’t want to push them into something they’re not comfortable with,” he said.

In the few months that it’s been up and running, the campground has seen success. Hon said 228 people have lived in its now 51 campsites, and area residents have seen some reductions in crime.

“This campground is a godsend for a lot of people,” Hon said.

Still, it took work to get there. Dealing with changing weather in an exposed setting, and establishing and operating the campground required the collaboration of a number of different agencies, as well as some support from community members, Hon said.

Take the campground’s meals, for example: The sheriff’s office has been providing breakfasts, while dinners are cooked by a local mission. For lunch, Rogue Retreat sometimes cooks, but often asks residents to go out to local churches or nonprofits.

“I’ve never seen such collaboration between organizations to support people,” Hon said. “I’m very thankful for the community that we’ve got here.”

One of the key differences between the Devereux Center’s proposal and the system in place in Medford is referrals to the program. Coos Bay has only one officer assigned to the kind of work the Medford Livability team does, meaning there’s not enough manpower to make referrals. So, the proposal calls on the Devereux Center to be the gateway to a spot in the campground.

In Medford, the Rogue Retreat campground isn’t a permanent place to live, and residents stay anywhere between a few weeks to several months, depending on their needs to get into stable housing.

That’d be the same in the Coos Bay plan, Johnson said.

“The community campground is not their new home,” Johnson said in an interview Monday. “It’s a temporary place for case management to help get them to their next spot.”

Coos Bay city officials are studying the possibility of establishing a homeless campground near the bay. Mail Tribune file photo