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Some Rural Areas Take Law and Order Approach To Homelessness

April Ehrlich | JPR News
Buckshot Cunningham stands in front of a small cottage at Hope Village, a tiny house shelter run by the nonprofit Rogue Retreat in Medford.

Chilly winds and hail don’t bother Buckshot Cunningham, who lived outside without a shelter for years until he came across this tiny house village in southern Oregon.

“This is my umbrella,” he says as he shrugs on the hood of his coat, walking into a late January winter storm.

Hope Village is run by Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit serving low-income people in Medford. It’s a collection of about a dozen small cottages with a communal kitchen, dining area, and bathrooms.  It’s what housing advocates call a low-barrier shelter, in that there are few rules and requirements to get in. There are some behavioral rules — you can’t be violent or do drugs on the premises — but you don’t have to be sober when you come in, and you can bring your family, partner, or dog.

“Twelve years of drug and alcohol” is how Cunningham says he got here. But there’s more to his story: a career as a firefighting smokejumper left him with physical disabilities. He lost his son to suicide, then his wife to cancer.

“And I just went downhill from there,” he says.

Homelessness is often seen as an urban issue, but rural areas along the West Coast are also struggling with large homeless populations. Many of these areas don’t have the resources for shelters like the Hope Village, but even when they do, they’re sometimes reluctant to build them.

Just across the state border in rural Northern California, Shasta County had earned a $1.6 million grant to help fund a similar low-barrier shelter. County supervisors considered its proposal last winter when they heard from police chief Michael Johnson from the city of Anderson.

“It is just another enabling mechanism for the homeless, the transients, and the displaced people here,” Johnson told the board in February 2019. “When you create something and enable people, you’re going to attract more.”

Shasta County supervisors pushed the project back several times, citing their concerns about crime and a fear that it would attract more people. So Johnson proposed an alternative: a detention facility to house people who have committed low-level crimes like public drinking, urinating in public or sleeping in public spaces, crimes that are often unavoidable when you don’t have a home.

Johnson says incarceration can be used as a tool to provide services to people who are homeless and struggling with drug addiction or mental health issues.

“That's our opportunity to try to get that particular person involved in a program that will turn their life around and help them,” Johnson says. “That's when they're most vulnerable, when they’re the most willing to accept help and possibly agree to go into a program like that.”

Back in Oregon, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler has a similar sentiment. Sickler has spent the last few months advocating for a ballot measure to increase jailspace at the Jackson County Jail in Medford.

“Jail is a resource because when they come [to jail], there may be opportunities to become sober; and once they become sober, they tend to start to think differently,” Sickler says. “Maybe they would see a benefit to taking advantage of available services.”

Sickler and Johnson say they don’t want their rural communities to become like San Francisco or LA — overwhelmed with large homeless populations. They say providing free housing to homeless people is an urban approach and it isn’t working. Instead they emphasize law and order: bigger jails and more police officers.

Tristia Bauman, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, disagrees.

“That is not only an ineffective approach, it’s also the single most expensive approach."

Bauman says “housing first” initiatives — providing free housing with few strings attached — is the best way to end homelessness.

“It produces better outcomes,” Bauman says. “Not only in health, but also in education. And importantly to any lawmaker: it saves communities money. In fact, it is the cheapest and most effective intervention, and that is established by a number of national studies.”

Still, not everyone is open to the idea. Rogue Retreat plans to build another shelter like Hope Village in Grants Pass, but it's facing some pushback from city councilors. They worry that it could increase crime and generate litter.

But Hope Village resident Buckshot Cunningham says those fears are unfounded.

“Look at this place,” he says, motioning to the neat row of cottages. “It’s clean, it’s beautiful. And it stays that way seven days a week, all year round. It’s pretty simple.”

Cunningham has had his own room here for about four months. Now he’s sober, he has a girlfriend, and he’s saving money to rent an apartment.

“Getting my feet back on the ground here has enabled me to get back to society,” he says. “Making me better myself. Not making me, but helping me want to.”

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.