By Vernon Huffman
“Everybody’s gotta eat,” explained the Stone Soup volunteer with a smile. Every day people from the Corvallis area come together in one of two churches to share a free meal prepared by volunteers. There are no forms to fill out, no sermons to sit through, and no questions asked; just good food for hungry people, often more than one hundred at a meal.
There are several programs in place to make sure everyone gets enough to eat. COI distributes free day old bread. CSC on 2nd St administers the federal food stamps program to low-income households. Local farmers sell fresh produce directly at biweekly farmers’ markets to cut out distribution costs and, when able, give extra credit for food stamps.
We do not live by bread alone. Maslow famously ordered our basic human needs. Most of the lower level needs – clean air, water, food, clothing, shelter, and meaningful work – are recognized internationally as basic human rights. In the USA, one generally must have two pieces of ID to deserve those rights.
Citizenship is not the only hurdle. Some services require proof of sobriety, which can be very tough for an addict to come up with. Others simply require civil behavior. Even this can be a challenge for the mentally ill. Right now federal law requires that everyone have insurance that covers mental health and addiction treatment, but the bureaucratic hurdles can still seem impossible to the person struggling with these debilitating conditions.
Add to this the social judgment of those who don’t behave in a socially approved manner and you have a tiered society where the bottom rung is populated by people some consider disposable. Some of us are unwilling to accept this condition, but how much are we willing to risk in order to help remedy the situation?
(Group protests homeless shelter closure in Corvallis in April 2014. Photo by Andy Cripe for the Corvallis Gazette Times)
Corvallis is comparatively good to homeless people. Besides Stone Soup, Vina Moses offers free clothes & simple household items once a month to people with ID. COI has childcare and shelter for those who are sane and sober, while county health offers care to those who are not. Buses run fare-free. Police here are not known for beating people simply because they are unhoused. Many cities cannot say that.
The Daytime Drop-In Center provides a safe place to hang out weekday mornings with free coffee and pastries. They can help people to obtain IDs or prescription drugs, even some part-time unskilled labor work for those who are willing to make an effort. Love, I.N.C., the bicycle collective, and the Lions offer various services, as do some area churches. Twelve step programs are fairly easy to find.
All this has not been enough to keep people from dying outdoors in Corvallis. A key piece that has helped to prevent such unnecessary deaths is the emergency cold weather shelter run by an organization now called Housing First. After years of moving from one borrowed facility to the next, Housing First has bought the building on 4th St that they’ve been using for a men’s emergency shelter for the last few winters. With room for 20 bunk beds (40 beds) and no kitchen or shower, the current facility is inadequate, but better than nothing.
Rumor has it that Housing First has been consulting an architect and hopes to devise a plan for a shelter that can house one hundred men and women as well as providing a place for the Drop-In Center and Stone Soup. Just having showers available when needed would be a huge improvement in the health of our poorest residents. More details will be announced when funding is secure.
These services are not an unproductive investment. As occasional news stories point out, people periodically find their way out of homelessness, addiction, and/or mental illness to become productive members of our community. Twelve step group meetings are generally full of such success stories. Addicts in recovery usually focus upon giving back to the community.
Homelessness is a uniquely American problem. Even countries much poorer than ours generally have a more intact family network. They may have a shortage of housing, but most respond by packing families tighter, not turning relatives into the streets. We’ve got more empty beds in the USA than we have homeless, but we can’t seem to make the connection.
Do services attract people who need them? Maybe. Is that a problem? Once their needs are met, people may become an asset to the community. Buckminster Fuller argued that saving the lives of occasional geniuses would make it a worthwhile investment to feed, clothe, heal, house, and educate everyone else.
I’m proud to live in a community that at least tries to recognize the value of every person and to respect basic human rights. I hope we get that new shelter built soon.
Vernon Huffman is a writer and activist based on Corvallis, Oregon.