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Poverty and Homelessness

Spike In Homeless Deaths On Oregon's South Coast Highlights Holes In Safety Net

Erik Neumann
Pastor Bernie Lindley at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Brookings. With few resources for homeless people in Curry County Lindley's church congregation has helped homeless residents in need.

There was an alarming increase in the number of homeless people who died in towns on Oregon’s Southwest coast during the pandemic. While there’s no single cause, it all comes back to housing.

On a recent Sunday in St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Father Bernie Lindley is holding a service about charity and healing and good will.

“Peter, empowered by his faith and the witness of Jesus Christ, sees this man and heals this man, and the man gets up at once and dances for joy,” Lindley says to the dozen parishioners seated throughout the small church.

But what the service is really about is a local homeless woman here in Curry County. She was dropped off on the church’s front porch by the sheriff’s department because there was nowhere else for her to go. Over time, she lost the ability to walk, so Lindley and the congregation took care of her.

“Ministry is messy and it’s dirty and it’s yucky. And if you think that guy laying on the ground at the beautiful gate when Peter and John walked by was just freshly scrubbed and clean,” Lindley pauses. “I want to tell you that he probably smelled bad. He probably hadn’t been bathed in a long time. He probably didn’t have easy access to a rest room.”

Lindley goes by Father Bernie. A long white pastor’s stole hangs from his neck. It’s embroidered with purple, blue and red fish, which seems fitting for the gruff crab fisherman priest.

Lindley says there are no shelters and few services for homeless people in Brookings, and that’s contributed to the nine who have died since September. Normally there would be just one or two deaths, he says. People have died from exposure, collisions with cars, overdoses and a fire among other things.

The pandemic, he says, has pushed vulnerable people over the edge.

“What do you do about a thing like that,” Lindley says, “where they were just kind of holding on by their fingernails and then the ledge gave way?”

About 100 miles up the coast in Coos Bay, Tara Johnson gives a tour of the homeless services non-profit, the Devereux Center. Commercial washer and driers spin in the background and a full house of clients are eating lunch and using computers. They serve meals, provide clothes, and have a warming center.

This small coastal community experienced a similar spike in homeless deaths since the beginning of 2021. Eight people have died, a number more common for an entire year.

Erik Neumann/JPR
Tara Johnson is the director of the Devereux Center in Coos Bay. She has seen a spike in deaths of homeless individuals during the pandemic.

“It's kind of like a perfect storm,” Johnson says. “The ages of the people that passed away range from younger to older. We haven't had that number continue at this moment but it was startling.”

Morgan Waterson is visiting the Devereux Center. He’s not currently homeless but has been in the past.

“COVID definitely has an effect,” he says. “It affects everything and most of the time it’s negatively. It’s got to have affected the homeless population here.”

Erik Neumann/JPR
Morgan Waterson of Coos Bay says he's noticed the increase in deaths in the area.

Waterson says people have died from alcohol and drug use. He says local support services have dried up, like the volunteers who would hand out food from pickup trucks, which stopped during the pandemic.

Increased death rates were seen across the country during the pandemic, according to Courtney Pladsen, the clinical director at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“It really was just a catastrophic failure of the safety net of our health care system and all our social systems across the country,” she says.

Pladsen says these numbers have not increased for any single reason, including the COVID-19 virus, but the many social and environmental realities of being homeless during the pandemic; the adjacent non-medical factors public health officials call the social determinants of health.

“If someone is experiencing homelessness, doesn't have access to shelter, does not have access to healthy food, does not have a safe living environment, all of those things are going to greatly outweigh any access to care that they have,” Pladsen says.

In Brookings, solutions have been a hard sell. Homeless advocates applied for Project Turnkey, an Oregon program where vacant hotels are converted into housing. It’s been done in Ashland, Medford, Klamath Falls and nine other parts of the state during the pandemic.

But the proposal was shot down by the Brookings city council. In mid-April then-Mayor Jake Pieper wrote a personal letter of support for the project. He got such backlash from the council that he resigned. The new mayor, former councilman Ron Hedenskog, is critical of a hotel shelter.

“There's lots of reasons to be afraid of one of these things,” he says.

Erik Neumann/JPR
Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog is critical of homeless services being created in the small coastal community. Hedenskog became mayor in April after then-Mayor Jake Pieper resigned because the city council protested his support of a homeless shelter program.

Hedenskog says he’s “not willing to make a big fuss” out of the recent homeless deaths. He says many residents don’t want city-sanctioned homeless camps or a hotel shelter.

“We don't have any motels out in the boondocks. They're all on Highway 101 frontage. What kind of effect could this possibly have on tourism? That's a big one on the coast,” Hedenskog says.

Hedenskog, Johnson and Lindley all say there is little-to-no housing available on the South Coast right now, which makes it hard to change anyone’s situation who is currently unhoused.

There is one new shelter program on the horizon. The Devereux Center is opening the region’s first community campground in early June. It’s based on a similar program from Medford’s Rogue Retreat and will house 19 people.

While Mayor Hedenskog worries support services will attract more homeless people, Tara Johnson at the Devereux Center in Coos Bay says the way to address homelessness is giving people a place to stay so they can get back on their feet, rather than push them out.

“All you're going to do is chase the can down the road, and then the can’s going to circle and end up back where it started,” Johnson says. “And all you've done is spend your day or week or year chasing the can down the road.”