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Roseburg leaders grappling with rise in downtown homeless

By TROY BRYNELSON
Of the News-Review

ROSEBURG — The homeless population in downtown Roseburg is becoming more and more disruptive, local leaders say. One business owner went so far as to say it is approaching “critical mass.”

“I am afraid that we are at critical mass on this issue and there is a call to action,” hair salon owner Misty Ross wrote in an email to city leaders. “... What are you going to do Roseburg officials? The public is restless and I fear that if you don't act soon you will find a large contingent at city hall for a council meeting demanding a response because the lack of one to date is not acceptable.”

Ross wrote the letter after her employees had to clean up human waste just outside the store. A group of homeless had been sleeping under a tarp and left behind the health hazard. Other store owners have told Ross, who sits on the city's economic development commission, that those instances are becoming more common and are going to put business in a standstill.

“The merchants, employees and patrons in the downtown area are becoming frustrated and restless,” Ross said. “People come to me on a daily basis to express their concerns and I am obligated to try and help pass this information on to the leaders in our community to come up with some viable answers.”

It is a complex problem everywhere, not only in Roseburg. But local leaders agree that somehow the numbers of homeless in the central business district has grown dramatically, as has undesirable behavior.

“People feel like the numbers (of transients) have increased, there are more homeless people downtown,” Roseburg Mayor Larry Rich said. “That's what they mean when they say it's gotten worse.”

City Manager Lance Colley, who noted that it's a problem all over the state, said police have written more tickets and arrested more homeless than usual.

“The way you reduce citations and arrests is you have fewer people breaking the law,” he said.

Police agree that the numbers seem to have grown and, with it, a rash of break-ins into abandoned businesses. Roseburg Chief of Police Jim Burge said he's noticed greater numbers just driving through downtown. And while being homeless in and of itself isn't a crime, police have caught more trespassing and littering cases than usual lately. Transients are more often cited for prohibited camping.

For example, four transients broke into the old Safeway building in the downtown area a little more than a week ago and were summarily arrested for trespassing. The next day, shortly after 10 p.m., an officer found three transients inside the old Professional Center on Southeast Oak Avenue.

“It's pretty disheartening to see the level of disrespect to private property that some of these folks are showing,” Burge said.

Statistics to show whether officers are spending more time than usual dealing with transient problems was not yet available, but Burge said that appears to be the case.

“It obviously adds more calls-for-service, and it frustrates the business and property owners because really the onus is on them (to clean up after homeless people),” Burge said.

Services are available to homeless and transients to keep them from breaking into properties in order to stay out of the elements. The Roseburg Mission and, for women and children, Casa de Belen, have had open beds recently. Transients might not use those services, however, because both those shelters separate homeless by gender and also require certain conditions like surrendering drugs.

In her email, Ross called on city administration to come up with solutions. She suggested having an officer dedicated to patrolling the area. In the past, officials have talked about putting in public bathrooms, but there are none yet. The downtown parking garage is set to undergo some remodeling to make it harder for transients to squat and commit crimes in its stairwell, too.

However, Colley said homelessness is a problem that is generally too complicated for local governments to tackle on their own. To solve it requires specialists in many fields, like mental illness and affordable housing and more. Recently, the Downtown Roseburg Association has put on community meetings to brainstorm for some answers and Colley encouraged the community to keep that up.

Ross said she and other business owners want to see action from the city somewhere.

“They need do something, rest assured,” she said. “The merchants that come to me daily to talk about this are frustrated.”

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Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com

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