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Is helping homeless at odds with livability?

Service providers say their work does not increase the amount of homeless


OUTLOOK PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Homeless and low-income individuals sort through donated clothes Sunday with the assistance of volunteers at Trinity Lutheran Church. A group called No One Left Behind offers meals and services at the church three days a week.Do the cluster of churches and organizations on the edge of downtown Gresham offering food and shelter encourage homeless campers to congregate along the Springwater Trail?

The trail acts as a corridor for many homeless between Portland and Gresham. Two weeks ago the city of Gresham fenced off 60 acres on the south edge of the trail because campers were destroying years of woodland restoration work. Neighbors also complained that some homeless were sneaking onto their property and threatening them.

During a 10-hour police shift last Friday, two officers found 36 people in the restricted area. Eight were given warnings for being inside the area, two men were arrested for felonies, and one man was arrested on a Clackamas County warrant.

Some Gresham residents feel the churches and organizations who offer a daily meal and day shelter are drawing the homeless population to the city.

Between Trinity Lutheran Church, St. Henry Catholic Church, and Zarephath Kitchen and others, there’s food and day shelters available six days a week.

Zarephath, 59 N.W. Ava Ave., serves lunch 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, which many homeless say is often their only meal. St. Henry provides a day shelter starting a 1 p.m. and a hot meal at 4:30 p.m. every Tuesday.

At neighboring Trinity Lutheran Church, 507 W. Powell Boulevard, a program called No One Left Behind provides meals Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, where upwards of 50 people often wait in line to eat.

While some believe that the services attract the people, advocates for the homeless population say this is a myth that distracts from working on solutions like housing and rent control.

Data from Multnomah County's 2015 homeless count support the advocates. The count showed that 65 percent of the homeless in Gresham are from East Multnomah County.

“It looks like the city, and I could be wrong, is just trying to push the homeless out to Portland, which is disappointing considering that 65 percent of all homeless in east county come from east county,” said Steve Kimes, pastor of Anawim Christian Community which is a shelter and church for the homeless. “It seems that Gresham needs to take responsibility for their own. They need to welcome shelters and welcome some services.”

The view that services attract the homeless persists nationally, said Shannon Singleton, executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit organization that connects homeless with jobs and housing.

“The perpetuation of the myth that services bring homeless people, I hear it and I've worked in many places across the country and I hear it in every community,” said Singleton. “It’s something that’s pretty widely thought to be true in the Gresham area.”

Ron Scherler, the ministry director for No One Left Behind, understands the conflict between residents and services that impact their livability.

"I believe it's a very difficult problem," Scherler said. "The city does things to maintain livability to protect assets and things along the trail, but at the same time we can't ignore the homeless and they need some place for shelter.

"An awful lot of these people that we're talkinga bout have lived in east county for a long time, if not their entire life," he said. "They are people who graduated from our high schools and this is their home,"

Another view

Gresham police tell a different story, however.

"By in large, many of the people who are experiencing homelessness in the Gresham area are not originally from Gresham," said John Rasmussen, public information officer for the Gresham Police Department. "This assesment is from talking with dozens of people, most of whom say they come to Gresham because there are a lot of places that offer free food. The food is bringing them to Gresham."

Members of the Southwest Neighborhood Association said Police Chief Craig Junginger suggested last September they talk with the churches about the number of services offered and having them hold the homeless accountable for their behavior.

Rasmussen said even the churches have asked for help controlling crowds.

“In recent years, our homeless population has risen and so have calls for police service to the (Zarephath) kitchen,” Rasmussen said. “Especially during the summer months, we get calls from neighbors, passersby and the kitchen itself regarding fights, open drug use, urinating and defecating in public, sleeping in the parking lot, loud and vulgar language, menacing, warrants, camping nearby, concerns for nearby children and suspicious behavior.”

Last year, Zarephath asked police to help with loitering too.

“It’s during situations like these that the neighbors become worried and upset and truly their livability is effected,” Rasmussen said. “When great-hearted organizations encourage those experiencing homelessness to come to the area but may not have a desire or ability to provide more than a meal for them, they may shoulder some responsibility for what happens when their participants cause problems.”

Jack Ardner, president of the Southwest Neighborhood Association, said understanding on both sides has improved since the meeting where Junginger suggested residents talk to churches.

“Terry (Shumway, chair of the Southwest Neighborhood Safety committee) had meetings with some of the pastors … they were unaware of the magnitude of the issues,” Ardner said, “There’s been a lot of information and sharing of knowledge and kind of a changing of viewpoints, or at least acceptance that there are different viewpoints and so I think thing are in a markedly different place than they were in September last year.

“The churches wouldn’t be doing what they were doing if they didn’t see that there was a huge humanitarian crisis, so they are trying to do what they know how to do, and I really can’t expect them to do less than that.”

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