Surviving the night

The Devereux Center opens their basement to local homeless in January 2016 to keep warm on some of the harshest nights of the year. In addition to a roof over their head, the clients have access to food, restrooms, and limited supplies.

Bethany Baker, The World

COOS BAY — As the nights get colder, the more Tara Johnson worries about the homeless people curled up on the streets.

Last year, the Devereux Center opened up a warming center in its basement. It didn’t allow homeless people to sleep there, since it isn’t outfitted for boarding, but it did allow people to walk in during the night to get warm, get food and stay out of the elements.

“The Warming Center is ready to open this year, but we’re waiting on a permit from the city right now,” said Johnson, the center’s director. “We’re already into November and haven’t opened yet, partly because of the city, since we haven’t received a permit. There were already two nights we would have been open if we had the permit by now.”

Both nights in question dipped to 36 degrees, one of which was also met with storm winds. However, the City of Coos Bay is looking to create ordinances on how to regulate warming centers and emergency shelters across the board rather than on a case-by-case basis.

“The city doesn’t have a standard process, and here we are trying to use a building not intended for this use, so we’re trying to come up with something that meets humanitarian needs,” said Coos Bay City Manager Rodger Craddock. “Many cities already have those ordinances in place, so I tasked our fire chief at look at it rather than us dealing with it on a case-by-case basis.”

Craddock listed off makeshift shelters that existed before the Warming Center, which included Joey’s Arcade and the Green Spot before that.

“None of those buildings were ever designed for human occupancy, so we need to do what we can to make sure they are safe while in there,” he said. “We need to have standards.”

Since giving Coos Bay Fire Chief Mark Anderson the job of looking into other city ordinances, Craddock admitted that the process took longer than anticipated. Because temperatures are starting to drop, Anderson was given the green light to issue the Warming Center a letter permitting them to open.

“It is standard to open at 32 degrees,” Craddock said. “We stuck with what Eugene and Springfield have. This permission also includes that someone has to be awake at all times while it is open. The last thing we want is to have everyone asleep and a fire break out in a building not designed for this.”

As of Monday afternoon, the center had yet to receive the letter permitting them to open. However, Johnson said whenever the letter comes in, they are ready to go.

Though she is anxious to get the Warming Center running again, she is pushing for the city to allow her to open at 36 degrees rather than 32.

“Last year we started out at 32 degrees but bumped it up to 36,” she said. “FEMA’s guidelines for freeze warnings take into account the wind chill and inclement weather. I want to make sure that the city does the same.”

Last year, the warming center had an average of 50 people per night but at any given moment there might only be 30 downstairs.

“We deal with the mentally ill all the time,” Johnson explained. “They need to get up and walk around, so they might sign in but they get anxious and leave and then come back in to get warm again.”

She feels pressure to get the Warming Center open because she is also hearing from the homeless that their tents are getting slashed.

“I’ve had several people tell me they’ve gone back to find their tents with big gashes, rendering it useless to protect them from the weather,” she said, adding that in her opinion “that’s not a homeless-on-homeless crime because they would be more likely to steal a tent instead of slash it.”

In the wake of rising tempers between the homeless community and their residential neighbors, Johnson fears that this might be “vigilante justice,” though has no proof to support those claims.

“The homeless people aren’t willing to call the cops because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves because where they camp is not legal, so they feel trapped which makes them more hostile and irritated so I’m afraid there is a storm brewing between the community and homeless people,” she said.

The alleged tent slashing is reportedly happening in the Empire Lake and Bay areas.

Coos Bay Police Chief Gary McCullough said that if any of these incidents were to be reported, they would be investigated.

“It is personal property, so it is a crime,” he said. “It’s not a top priority crime but it would be looked into.”

For Jeffrey Sam Houseman and John Henry (aka Hoppy) told The World that it happened to them more than once, though said that the ruined tents were no longer around.

“They slashed mine,” Hoppy said. “Trash gets scattered and washed into the ocean, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s just Empire’s dirty laundry you might as well say.”

As Coos Bay reviews issues surrounding homelessness, the city is also looking at ordinances currently being used that have proved successful in dealing with these issues.

“We’re looking at ordinances for what to do when people camp in vehicles,” Craddock said. “In Eugene and Springfield, there is an ordinance that allows churches a set number of spots available for people who camp in a vehicle and provide requirements for sanitary needs, such as trash and Porta Pottys. The church enforces it rather than it just being on the streets.

“How do we deal with this as a growing issue across the nation?” he asked. “We’re not turning a blind eye.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.

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