For the past three winters, Walter Clark has lived at the Men’s Cold Weather Shelter in Corvallis.
Clark, 58, wears a gray hat on his bald head and carries a camouflage backpack on his shoulders. His hands and voice shake a little.
At the shelter, Clark could get a cup of hot coffee, a friendly greeting and a safe place to sleep.
“If it wasn’t for (the shelter), I probably would have froze to death, the first year I was out here on the streets,” he said.
This winter, many homeless men in Corvallis may have nowhere to go. The shelter of last resort, the Men’s Cold Weather Shelter, was forced to close. Managers say that, after an exhausting search for a new site, they are unlikely to find a new location by this winter.
Clark is moving in with his fiancee and hopes to be off the streets by wintertime. But he worries about his friends who are still homeless.
“If it closes, there’s going to be a lot of people on the street,” he said. “It makes me feel a little bit angry, and a little bit sad.”
The Men’s Cold Weather Shelter was housed in a stone building downtown on Southwest Fourth Street.
Corvallis Housing First, a nonprofit, owns the building and has operated the shelter there for five years. It opened seasonally and allowed homeless men to stay overnight without requiring them to be clean and sober.
It’s the only “wet” shelter for men in Corvallis and provided about 40 beds. According to Corvallis Housing First, about a quarter of them are veterans, and about half have moderate health issues.
“They are not the easiest group of individuals,” said Brad Smith, board president of Corvallis Housing First.
Smith said that for homeless individuals who have some combination of addiction and physical or mental illness, a sobriety requirement is simply “not realistic.”
But the shelter’s philosophy didn’t sit well with some neighbors.
Last year, a neighboring property owner sued Corvallis Housing First over the alleged behavior of the homeless people at the shelter and nearby.
To settle the case, Corvallis Housing First agreed not to use its building as a shelter after the 2016 season.
The lawsuit was the culmination of years of problems.
Business owners reported incidents of public defecation, trespassing and harassment by people they associated with the shelter.
Peter Ball is the president of Corvallis Insurance Services Inc., a small business down the street. Ball said his employees felt unsafe walking to their cars and that the shelter drove people away.
In his back office, Ball still has an extra-tall can of Budweiser beer he found in the bushes from what he said was a stash from a homeless individual.
“Typically, the people who went into the shelter would hide their drugs and their booze,” Ball said. “And then they go out in the morning, and they get their stash. That was a common thing.”
Smith said, in retrospect, Corvallis Housing First should have responded more quickly to its neighbors’ concerns.
Now managers hope to make a fresh start somewhere else.
Corvallis Housing First has reviewed 27 locations for a new shelter. None worked out. Smith said zoning regulations limit the available land for shelters. The nonprofit is running on a “shoestring operation,” narrowing the already limited options.
Some property owners have been hesitant to rent to a homeless shelter.
“One of the realities is that while people conceptually may support the idea of there being a winter shelter, the concurrent reality is that they don’t want it anywhere near them,” Smith said.
Smith said one irony is that because of the lawsuit, there may be 40 men sleeping outside while their old building sits vacant.
“There’s a better than even chance that we will not have a shelter this winter,” Smith said.
Jen McDermond, a case manager at the Men’s Cold Weather Shelter, points to all of the supplies she’s packed up to put in storage. Stacks of mattresses reach the ceiling and plastic containers of socks are piled up in a corner.
McDermond has dozens of clients, and she doesn’t know what will happen to them this winter. She said three people died last year, in part, because of exposure to cold weather and complications like frostbite and hypothermia.
“My youngest person who died was 28, and that was three years ago. And he died because he didn’t have proper shoes,” McDermond said, tearing up.
Without the shelter this winter, McDermond fears for her clients’ survival.
“For me, it’s about life and death.”
— Ryan Nguyen, Aloha High School
— Sagarika Ramachadran, Lincoln High School