BROOKINGS, Ore. — A Brookings neighborhood has passed around a petition and is asking the city to step in and stop the homeless individuals from congregating outside St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.
The church, located on 401 Fir St, hosts daily feedings, health clinics and since the start of the pandemic has been authorized to host no more than three car campers in its parking lot.
The church's Vicor, Bernie Lindley, said before the pandemic the church only provided meals two days a week but since a number of other local churches stopped doing feedings because they had switched to virtual services, he decided to step in and fill an unmet need.
"We continued to provide services because it's not just the meals that we do we also have people come in during our office hours, Monday, Wednesday Friday (in the mornings) to use our showers and bathe," he said. "We have clothing available for them we give them a voucher so that they can get their laundry done at a local laundromat."
The city of Brookings and Curry County as a whole do not have a dedicated homeless shelter. During the pandemic, the city passed a temporary ordinance allowing churches to host up to three car campers while the stay-at-home order was still in effect. According to City Manager, Janell Howard, St Timothy's was the only church to apply for and obtain that permit which is likely to expire June 28 on the day, Governor Kate Brown has estimated the state will reach a 70% vaccination rate and stay at home orders will be lifted.
Lindley said during the pandemic the issues that many vulnerable individuals were dealing with were exacerbated by dwindling of resources.
"People who needed in-person mental health care no longer had access," he said. "There is not a lot of different mental health services available in our community but they were shut off completely, they were shut off from the public library they were shut off from things like even go use the restroom at McDonald."
He said because of that the church started to see an increase of homeless individuals congregate in its vicinity.
"We ended up with an increase in traffic and we ended up with a more vulnerable population coming too because they had nowhere else to be," he said. "We ended up last summer and into the fall with a whole lotta folks that were really struggling with the effects of the pandemic and their mental health was unraveling."
Now neighbors are complaining that those individuals are a "threat to public safety" and are asking the city to take action.
"In the past three months along vagrants have caused significant problems in the community including but not limited to criminal trespassing, theft, harassment, possession of drugs, littering, disorderly conduct, physical altercation and even child neglect," the petition reads. It was signed by 29 residents in the neighborhood and presented to the City Council in March.
The council took a look at those issues during a work session on Monday where they heard from residents on both sides of the matter. Staff pointed out that though new churches are not allowed in residentially zoned areas many of the churches currently present in the city, like St. Timothy's, have been there long before those zones were established and were grandfathered in.
However, staff suggested that because the scope of what St. Timothy's church offers has changed over the last 12 years it could be required to obtain a conditional use permit from the city's planning board. The council does not make any determinations or decisions during a work session. Howard said the council may or may not decide to take this up as an agenda item during a business meeting in the future.
"Staff may just work directly with St. Timothy's," she said pointing out that Lindley has been willing to come to the table and find solutions.
Lindley said he has made the three individuals camping at the church aware that the car camping permit would expire and they would have to move. With no shelters available in the city or county, he said he is concerned about where they will go.
"We've had 10 people die in the last nine months that were homeless but it wasn't because of exposure I think it was because of lack of access to services and lack of a place to be at night," he said. "One guy was out on a skateboard and got hit by a truck, if he would have had a place to live he wouldn't have been out skateboarding at two-o-clock in the morning."
Residents in the neighborhood however complain that they have had their mail stolen and have felt their safety threatened because of the mental health state that some of the individuals seeking services at the church are in.
"Over the past year I've had to purchase a logging mailbox because I have caught a few of the church's guests in my mailbox, they've walked up to my house and returned my mail," said Brandon Usry during the meeting on Monday. "We are not trying to solve the nation's crisis of homelessness here in Brookings Oregon I mean we can't do that. I'm here because I fear for my life and my own house."
During the meeting, the council played a video Usry had taken of one of the church's car campers who could be heard yelling while apparently struggling with a mental health episode.
Lindley explained that the individual in question does struggle with mental health issues and could benefit from services but he said there are none available to her and the church is doing what it can to help her find stability.
"She's emotionally fragile, she has a mental illness and so she has a tendency to draw a lot of attention to herself," he said. "Where is she going to go? She should be in a mental health group home but that doesn't exist so where is she going to be?"
One resident who also spoke at the meeting complained that homeless individuals have also been spending time in the nearby Azalea park since the church began offering more services.
"This isn't about us not being compassionate, I am compassionate all day long I have helped so many students," said Tina Peters during the meeting noting that she used to work at Brookings High School. "I would help anybody but we have to be safe we are not safe when we go to the park."
Lindley said he does not want to cause conflict with neighbors and will do what he can to mitigate the problems and comply with city staff recommendations but says its the church's mission to provide help to those in need.
"It's our intention to provide stability to people who do not have stability not to create instability for people," he said. "If someone feels nervous because they see homeless people coming and going to our location, maybe they can get to know the people we serve a little bit and humanize them."
The church also provides an address for homeless individuals to receive mail at so that they can apply for documents such as birth certificates, ID or health coverage. Lindley said he has also helped individuals receive their stimulus packages. The church has also been hosting COVID-19 vaccination clinics.