Law Enforcement Officials Argue Rural Homeless Services Worsen Problem Rural homelessness in Oregon isn't as visible as its urban equivalent, but it's a major problem. Even when money is available, local officials say providing resources could make the problem worse.

Law Enforcement Officials Argue Rural Homeless Services Worsen Problem

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We often think of homelessness as an urban issue, but rural areas also struggle with homeless populations, and many of these towns don't have money for shelters. But even when they do, leaders are sometimes reluctant to build them. Jefferson Public Radio's April Ehrlich reports from the Oregon-California border.

APRIL EHRLICH, BYLINE: Chilly winds and hail don't bother Buckshot Cunningham, who lived without a shelter for years until he came across this tiny house village, a shelter run by a nonprofit called Rogue Retreat in Medford on the Oregon-California border.

BUCKSHOT CUNNINGHAM: They're little houses. They're 10-by-10s, and I'm going to show you one.

EHRLICH: Years of working as a firefighter left Cunningham with physical disabilities. He became addicted to drugs and alcohol, lost his son to suicide then lost his wife to cancer.

CUNNINGHAM: And I just went downhill from there.

EHRLICH: Now he's sober. He has a girlfriend, and he's saving money to rent an apartment.

CUNNINGHAM: Getting my feet back on the ground here has enabled me to get back in society, making me better myself - not making me. It's helping me want to.

EHRLICH: The Hope Village is what housing advocates call a low-barrier shelter in that there are few rules and requirements to get in. National studies have shown that these shelters are the most effective and cost-efficient way to address homelessness, but not everyone is open to the idea.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: It is just another enabling mechanism for the homeless, the transients and the displaced people here.

EHRLICH: Right across the border in northern California, Police Chief Michael Johnson of the city of Anderson tells the Shasta County Board of Supervisors that he doesn't want to see a similar shelter built here.

JOHNSON: When you create something and enable people, you're going to attract more. And we're going to create a bigger problem by erecting such a center.

EHRLICH: Shasta County had earned a grant to help pay for the shelter, but county supervisors kicked the project back several times, citing their concerns about crime and the fear that if you build it, they will come. So Johnson suggested 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, which is still illegal here - crimes that are generally unavoidable when you don't have a home. Back in Oregon, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler says jail can actually help people living on the streets.

NATHAN SICKLER: Jail is a resource because when they come there, there may be opportunities to become sober. And once someone becomes sober, they tend to think a little differently. Maybe they would see more benefit into taking advantage of available services.

EHRLICH: Sheriff Sickler and Chief 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: That is not only an ineffective approach. It's also the single most expensive approach.

EHRLICH: Attorney Tristia Bauman is with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

BAUMAN: It is not unheard of for rural communities to use their punitive policies to try to get people to leave.

EHRLICH: Back at the Hope Village in rural southern Oregon, Buckshot Cunningham says shelters like this help people, and the fear that they contribute to crime or litter is simply unfounded.

CUNNINGHAM: Look at this place. It's clean, it's beautiful, and it stays this way seven days a week all year-round. It's pretty simple.

EHRLICH: Rogue Retreat plans to build another tiny house village an hour north of here, but it's facing some pushback from city councilors. Nonetheless, it's forging ahead, hoping in time that it can prove to this rural community that providing housing to people who don't have homes is something worth investing in.

For NPR News, I'm April Ehrlich in southern Oregon.

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