COOS BAY — Tucked behind Harmony United Methodist Church sits an ever-shifting neighborhood of tents, trucks and RVs.
For the past six months, the church has offered refuge for local homeless, providing a safe place for them to stay in its parking lot located on the corner where Central Avenue curves into Ocean Boulevard.
A dog looks around in a temporary homeless camp outside of the Harmony United Methodist Church in Coos Bay.
“It started when I let a homeless person stay on the property because that person had no other place to stay and word of mouth is faster than any Facebook page and it got around,” said Pastor Donald Ford. “There are a lot of people who come and go. It is a temporary shelter, not a long-term or permanent one.”
As Ford explained it, some homeless individuals spend the night in their car and leave in the morning.
But as of Friday, Ford counted 52 people living behind the church. Of those, 30 are family units. Those who stay on the church property have 24-7 access to the downstairs bathrooms, though the rest of the church remains locked.
Ford checks in on the camp every morning to ask how everyone is doing and what their plan is to move forward in finding permanent housing.
“I repeat to them that this is not a long-term situation,” he said. “And I remind them that there is only one rule, which is to treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”
Ford says he is working with the City of Coos Bay in revising a current ordinance on temporary overnight shelters.
“The city planner is in the process of revising it using our parking lot as a model to see what can happen in that situation,” Ford explained, though added that someone took photos of the camp recently and went to the city saying they were out of compliance.
“I got a call from the town and the matter has not been resolved yet, but I think the town appreciates what we’re doing to help the homeless. The homeless are here, not parked under the bench at the library or on the boardwalk downtown or at Mingus Park. I think a number of people appreciate what we’re doing to help.”
Tents in a temporary homeless camp outside of the Harmony United Methodist Church in Coos Bay.
While homeless individuals camp at the church parking lot, Ford recommends services that can get them back on solid ground. Since the camp established around May, local agencies have stepped up to help, including the Nancy Devereux Center, Department of Human Services, and Oregon Coast Community Action. According to Ford, those organizations have actively tried to help people in the camp find more permanent places to live through Section 8 vouchers.
Since the camp began, Ford said 20 to 30 people have “graduated” by moving out and into more stable living situations.
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Roy Campbell says he is the longest resident at the church camp, having been there since July. He highlighted the culture of the camp being like that of a neighborhood, one where the people there police themselves so they aren’t forced to move on.
According to the Coos Bay Police Department, Campbell was involved in an altercation on Ocean Boulevard on Halloween night. The police report stated that it was Campbell who called 911 after he came into the parking lot and was assaulted by a man who hit him in the shoulder, head and neck. The report added that he declined medical attention.
“I’m trying to build up one step at a time and hopefully I can hold this,” said the former Coquille High School graduate and U.S. Marine veteran, adding that he has been homeless on and off his whole life. “My thing is I want out of here as quickly as possible. This is a solid step up.”
Roy Campbell draws on a cigarette Thursday outside of the Harmony United Methodist Church in Coos Bay where he's been camped out for about the…
CBPD Captain Chris Chapanar told The World that a few police calls have been made to the church since the camp began a few months ago, but never for anything very serious.
“It’s not without problems,” Pastor Ford said. “Everyone knows there are problems in any neighborhood you live in. Yes, the Coos Bay Police are called on occasion and if it is serious they call me and I try to resolve the situation. Sometimes it’s a he-said/she-said situation and I’ve been known to not take sides but say they’re both gone. That’s why they police themselves as much as possible to not get the police involved.”
For camp resident Grace Ramey, who has been living in the parking lot for three weeks, the location has provided a safe place.
“I feel safe here,” she said, explaining that she fell homeless within the last year. “It all started six years ago when my husband passed away back when I was in Oklahoma.”
After developing panic attacks, she found herself on the street where she went on to lose important documents like her birth certificate and is struggling to find housing and get on Social Security.
Campers in a temporary homeless camp Thursday outside of the Harmony United Methodist Church in Coos Bay.
“We don’t want to live like this,” she said. “Some do, but I don’t. I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. I just want to get off the streets. I’ve lost everything.”
Pastor Ford hopes other churches would help pick up this cause, but doesn’t know if anyone will because “most people profile the homeless and think they are drug addicts, rapists, thieves and if they got a job then they wouldn’t be homeless when the reality is you can have a full-time job in this town and still not afford a home.”
Ford pointed out that some people at the camp have jobs, while others have monthly income with SSDI or SSI, but that it’s still not enough.
“I have no idea what the future may look like,” Ford said. “I hear all the time that ‘I don’t believe in organized religion’ but it is organized religion providing a home for the homeless.”