Housing Challenges in Tillamook County during COVID-19: The Invisible Ones

www.tillamookcountypioneer.net

By Laura Swanson
The Facebook post on a new group Tillamook County Homelessness Update page from Amber Hall, started like this: “I sent this email to the Tillamook County commissioners office on Thursday April 16th, the mayors office and sending it to as many emails as I can find at the governor’s office. I have already received a response from Oregon Health Authority. So I’m pleased about that, but nothing from the commissioners or anyone in the area. So I keep reading how Oregon agencies are trying to help the unsheltered or home challenged, but that is just not the case here in Tillamook County ”

The following is the email Hall sent to the OHA: “They are understanding that centralized encampments are better than having the homeless wandering around with no one having any idea how their hygiene is. How does anyone expect someone to follow all these health and cleanliness rituals when they don’t even have access to a restroom? I figured that with almost every Oregon department claiming to be taking the homeless into consideration that at some point all the officials could come to some sort of compromise or even a plan for that matter.”
When Tillamook County Commissioners reviewed plans to close county parks and restrict all campgrounds on March 22nd, there were concerns raised about Tillamook County residents that make their homes in the parks. In private campgrounds, there are long-term space rental agreements that were not to be impacted by the closures, but there were an undetermined amount of people that bounce around from campground to campground for a variety of reasons. Since the closures, many of these folks have been unable to find a spot, resorting to camping in the woods and with little or no access to restrooms. The Pioneer has also heard reports that at some private campgrounds, access to showers has been restricted.
In the best of times, our rural communities have been challenged to address housing issues, and now in the worst of times, it’s revealing the cracks through which these people slip. They are invisible. Having served on the Housing Task Force, I have firsthand knowledge and experience of the view of homelessness in Tillamook County. Many/most don’t even see it. It’s not like in the valley with the camps along freeways and in parks. Here in Tillamook County you have to drive up the logging roads, or take the back roads to see the camps. Every story is different about how they got there, and it really doesn’t matter, no one deserves to be unsheltered, to not have a home. And contrary to that popular thought that, “They must’ve done something to end up homeless” oftentimes that wasn’t the case. So many people in our community are now hanging on the edge of the funnel. Before COVID-19, they were one paycheck away from losing their home or car, and now that paycheck is gone. There are so many stigmas of being homeless that become heavy baggage, which often include the added weight of mental health issues, substance abuse and a myriad of other problems. There are no easy solutions, and especially not in times of crisis.
Amber Hall’s email to the Commissioners, etal, continues: “I sat in on a Bay City City Council meeting over the phone and addressed the issue and was basically told they have no answers for me. I just read a press release issued on the eleventh of March talking about people that are camping due to being homeless and the end of the article states how you guys are working with agencies to assist the unsheltered. I have not seen that whatsoever. All the campgrounds and parks are closed. Dispersed camping only allows 14 days if you can find one in an accessible section of the forest. There is no where for the homeless to go camp so instead of keeping us contained we have to bounce around every few days to find a spot to sleep. Which as the way I see it is completely counteracting staying at home and not traveling to not spread the virus. We are doing exactly that and we have no choice but to. For instance, I stay in a dispersed camp site in Bay City so I go to the local little store every couple days for supplies. In two days when I have to pack everything up and find a new place to sleep I will be going to that local store…..then a few days or a week later I will be going to another part of the county and visiting that little market. So in one month I will be exposing three different communities to the virus all the while they are practicing staying home to not get the virus. I hope this make sense. This is not a hypothetical situation either. I have to be out of the site by Tuesday and have to go find somewhere else to stay. Which will more then likely be 10 miles away in Rockaway for a few days. Then after that I will probably go to just outside Tillamook. All the while my partner is working full time so not only am I possibly exposing three different communities to a virus I am now risking getting infected by three different communities but am now exposing my spouse to the virus for him to expose to his work, which is estimated to have a few hundred employees on shift at any given time. I have asked the Forestry Department about temporary encampment permits or extending the 14 day limit on dispersed camping sites. I have contacted CARE. I have contacted the commissioners office. I have contacted the local mayors offices. Not one entity has given me any information on helping the homeless get sheltered or at least have a specific spot to stay at until the ban is lifted. This is in Tillamook County.
Portland and other surrounding areas have designated certain parks etc for the homeless to reside but not one agency in this county has even tried anything like it. I am in need of a stable spot. I am lucky to have access to the necessities I need. Food, heat, hygiene etc and I am having the most difficult time. I can’t imagine what people are going through that need more assistance. Care has implemented a housing assistance fund of $500 but only if you have already found a place to stay at. Unfortunately RV parks, shelters, camp grounds, beaches, and motels are closed to new registrants so the funds are pointless. I am at my wits end. Even the CDC recommends not clearing out encampments as to not disperse the people. I hope I get a response back. Thank you very much.”

Since Amber Hall sent her email, she has found a place to camp in the Tillamook Forest. There are some options available as CARE Inc.’s housing rental assistance could be used at the Western Royal Inn which is providing housing for essential workers and their families, and additional options for RVs are being explored. In central Tillamook, there are temporary restrooms placed in every park in Tillamook with hand washing stations for sanitation as suggested by the state. Showers are available at the Seventh Day Adventist Church Community Center. Explains Erin Skaar, Executive director of CARE, “I understand that is not convenient for everyone, but the statement that nothing is available is misleading. This community does care about those who are displaced and find ourselves with our hands tied due to the closures necessitated by the pandemic.” She continued, “When the closures happened, we did have a few people scramble for long term spots, and we provided rental assistance to them, but there are limited options available, and we are trying to work out ways to help people if we can. There are often unknown issues or circumstances beyond our control that come up, such as people not being able to follow rules at private campgrounds,” she continued. “The list of challenges that the homeless face is long and each is unique and individual.”
The Tillamook County Commissioners will address this issue during their Monday April 20th leadership team meeting at 8 am. The meeting is aired on KTIL 95.9 FM.