COOS COUNTY – Tensions are rising between the community and the homeless population.
“People feel helpless and it's building to a head, to a dangerous level,” said Greg Melo, member of the Empire Neighborhood Watch after an emergency meeting was called between watch members, Coos Bay city representatives, and the Devereux Center.
“I believe the simple fact is that there are more homeless people, more camps, more things being stolen,” Melo said. “Cops are understaffed and the breaking point is going to be when someone with a firearm breaks into the wrong house and gets shot. That's exactly where we are headed. It's inevitable. There are many solutions, we just have to listen to one another to get there. Honestly, that won't happen in this forum.”
Meeting degenerates into rage
Tempers raged at the meeting, held at Top Dog Coffee in North Bend, where Devereux Center's director Tara Johnson broke into tears, people shouted, and Coos Bay City Manager Rodger Craddock eventually led a man outside to help him cool down.
Though there are various reasons that cause homelessness and property crime - not always interconnected - local services have failed to pinpoint which of those causes is to blame. Lacking a direction and faced with no solutions, locals are pointing fingers at the Devereux Center. Not only is the center located in Empire, a part of Coos Bay that has seen an uptick in crime, but homeless camps that were reported by The World in a previous article have sprouted up behind it on the property of a neighboring business.
“I can't control my clients,” Johnson said during the meeting. “The other day someone called them my pets. These are people and they aren't my pets. If we can see that they are high or if we see drugs on the property, we tell them to leave, we even trespass them. I have at least a once a month conversation with all of them about not doing drugs on the property, but they are transient, they are going places to find jobs, to get social security. They aren't going to stay forever at the center. It is their launching pad. I can't control them, I try to help them.”
In fact, Johnson and her employees and volunteers were calling the Coos Bay Police Department so often that they were finally asked that unless someone was bleeding or dead, don't call.
“We've diminished our calls, we trespass people ourselves,” she said. “I can only do so much with the support from the police department.”
However, Empire resident James Gallagher pleaded with Johnson to install filters at the center such as drug tests and background checks that would better help her turn away people he and others don't want in town.
“You don't live here, you don't sit with your 7-year-old at night while she is asleep with your .45 on your lap waiting for someone to break in,” Gallagher said. “We want to live in our houses and feel safe and comfortable. We can't because of your clientele. There are homeless camps behind the elementary school and how many pedophiles are there? We don't know because you aren't tracking them. I'm attacking the center because they have no control.”
During the meeting, Craddock informed attendees that homelessness is not a crime and Coos Bay is not the only city having this kind of discussion.
“We’d sure like to know what the silver bullet is, because every community I know is dealing with this issue,” Craddock said in an interview.
Recently, Eugene committed $1 million to provide more shelter for homeless people, according to The Register-Guard.
That’s money that Craddock said Coos Bay doesn’t have.
“The city itself provides no social services, we can't. Property taxes go to police and fire. It is the reality of our resources. I hear you. I hear you're loud and upset and aggravated. Tara, you're upset because you feel personally attacked.” Craddock said at the meeting.
Though feelings about the ever-worsening homeless situation were discussed, nothing was resolved.
Gallagher referenced a Facebook post, a site that has become a verbal battleground between the center and the community, where Johnson admitted that a homeless man at the center decided to quit drugs after years of using.
“So you admit that you do serve people on drugs then,” he argued, then told the others, “Let's admit it, she is in over her head. The whole center is in over her head. No one wants to admit it, but it's the truth. She cares more about these people than the ones that have jobs, who go home to find cars stolen, houses broken into, crap stolen out of their house. I took my daughter to John Topits Park until I saw heroin needles, so we don't go there anymore and that's not fair to her or other citizens. These people don't want to change and there is a difference between helping and enabling and we're just running in circles.”
Law enforcement's view
Local law enforcement is well aware of the growing tempers. Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier expressed concern and recalled a case in Grants Pass where a neighborhood store was being routinely broken into.
“Beer was being stolen,” Frasier said. “The store owner got tired of it and hid in his market one night. Kids broke in to steal a case of beer. He pops up from behind the counter with a gun and they ran. He chased after them and shot them both. He killed one and seriously injured the other. The kids did wrong but you can't shoot people for that. People trespassing on property, you can run them off but using deadly physical force is illegal.”
Vigilante justice is something many are alarmed about.
"That’s particularly frightening," Oregon Coast Community Action executive director Mike Lehman said, "We’ll have a tragedy on the front page of the paper with everybody saying ‘why didn’t we stop this?’"
Frasier acknowledged that trespassing and loitering is a big issue in Coos County, as is squatting.
The squatting problem
Leon Lewis Terry, better known as Tiger, is a longtime homeless man in the area who found himself on the streets after being released from a 30-year prison sentence. Tiger took The World to popular shelter spots among other homeless. After gaining permission, The World entered one home that was being squatted in by at least four other homeless individuals on Wygant Street just outside of Coos Bay city limits. The group has been living there for up to a year.
Outside, there is a moat of trash surrounding the property piled waist high.
There is no running water, electricity or heat.
In the winter, squatters light an enormous fit pit for warmth in the back yard, hidden by thick rows of trees and overgrown bushes.
Inside, the walls are tagged by local kids, telling whoever reads the large print to “(Expletive) Die You Thieves,” along with gibberish that may or may not have been placed there by a homeless person. Human feces was found on the floor in the kitchen and one of the back rooms, as were two baby strollers amid discarded clothes and trash in the hallway.
“It's frustrating because not all of us live like this,” Tiger told The World, also taking reporters to vacated homeless camps where individuals cleaned up after themselves. “Wherever I stay, I make sure you don't see a trace of me left behind. There are people like me trying.”
“Squatting is such a problem in Coos Bay and North Bend in houses that have been foreclosed,” Frasier said. “It's a problem because it's hard to get banks holding the papers on the house to do something. They don't want to get involved. We're also starting to see people who see an abandoned home and think they can live there under squatter's rights, or adverse possession. Adverse possession is where people openly possess a house for a number of years and pay bills on it and call it theirs when it's not.”
Frasier dealt with a local case where a woman who owned a house by Mingus Park in Coos Bay died and the property went to her family. A man moved in, remodeled, put up a fence, put the power up in his name and when the family found out they called the police.
“When the officer showed up and asked what he was doing, the man said he was possessing it adversely and the cop walked away saying it was a civil case,” Frasier said. “Squatting and the homeless is an issue because it's where we get a lot of quality of life crimes, low level crimes like criminal mischief, trespassing, that won't land them in jail. They get a fine, a citation, but there's not much else we can do with them.”
Depending on who you ask, members of the community will have varied answers as to why there’s a homeless problem.
“I think there are people who think this is solely a police issue. I think there are people who think this is solely a mental health issue, I think there are people who think this is solely an addiction/drug problem,” North Bend Police Chief Robert Kappleman said, “All of those perceptions are based upon those person’s experiences and biases that lend them to believe that. They may not be wrong in some cases.”
Housing and the mentally ill
ORCCA's Lehman points to the lack of housing.
“We have to focus on getting more supportive or subsidized housing in the area,” Lehman said, “We’re fighting lack of housing for even people who have jobs.”
Coos County Sheriff's Office Capt. Kelley Andrews points to the overwhelming amount of mentally ill.
“As they commit these quality of life crimes and small crimes, it's hard to deal with them in the system when we only have 49 beds in our jail,” he said. “We cite them in lieu of custody and that doesn't get them the diagnoses they need or the treatment they need, or if they have a drug addiction it doesn't get them the drug treatment they need. The cops on the streets put out fires in the moment but that doesn't fix the problem.”
To make it worse, once a homeless individual has committed a crime serious enough or often enough to be prosecuted, they must then be competent enough to assist in their own defense. If not, due to mental illness, they are sent to the state mental hospital for a maximum of 30 days.
“But the state is giving us pressure not to send people to the hospital and when we do, it's just for 30 days and that hardly does anything,” Frasier said. “In some respects, people are trying to shoehorn people into the jail system when that isn't the place for them.”
Frasier looked back on last summer's murder trial of Shawn Yamate. Everyone in that case was homeless, including the victim, the murderer, and the witnesses.
“But they were all alcoholics too,” Frasier said. “The mental illness and drug addiction all factor into the homeless problem we are seeing.”
There is a push from the state for communities to do more mental health programs, which Frasier said is a good idea but a problem because “someone might be violent and mentally ill, and putting them back into the community might not be a good idea.”
Until a stronger system is put in place to deal with the mentally ill, Frasier said it is getting harder for the criminal justice system to deal with these people.
“It's getting harder because the number of beds is going down because they don't have enough staffing, among a number of reasons,” Frasier said. “If we have someone found incompetent to proceed with prosecution and they are in jail, it used to be that they'd go to the hospital as soon as the ward had a bed, so they would sit in jail for a few weeks. Under the new consent decree, they have to get them in the hospital in a certain amount of time so there is no more waiting for a bed, they just get sent to the ward. If they are at capacity, someone who is already there has to go.”
Local mental health agencies are working to alleviate the problem, or at least educate law enforcement to know how to handle mentally ill during their shifts. Coos Health and Wellness has been working the past year with a group of clinicians who respond to calls with officers.
Andrews said the Sheriff's Office has already been using them.
“Those kinds of programs are important because the police academy doesn't teach officers how to deal with the mentally ill,” he said. “Groups like this one is helping our officers understand what they are looking at.”
While the homeless situation is causing exasperation and, to some extent, hopelessness for both citizens and law enforcement, officials are still seeking solutions.
“It can seem like a hopeless situation, but it’s one that does need to be addressed,” Craddock said.
“If there was an easy solution to this it would’ve already been implemented,” Kappleman said, “Truly I think that homelessness is resolved one person at a time. Until you take each person and peel apart the layers of their issues and what led to their homeless situation and then work to address those issues, I think those problems are going to continue.”
This article is the first of an ongoing series covering the worsening homeless situation, and local efforts to ebb the transient tide, on the Southern Oregon coast.