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Measure gives latitude in responding to homelessness during severe weather for fourth year

For the fourth year in a row, the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners has renewed a state of emergency declaration aimed at stemming the effects of the local housing crisis through July 2021.

The emergency declaration was first put into place in 2017 and allowed the county's health, housing and human services department to rapidly expand severe weather housing capacity during that winter. The resolution adopted by the board Thursday, Aug. 13, states that the conditions under which the board originally adopted the emergency declaration have not improved. FILE PHOTO - CLACKAMAS COUNTY

"The increasing numbers of county residents, including families and children who are considered homeless, the need for safe, warm and habitable shelter for the homeless population, and the recognized lack of adequate temporary or emergency shelters for the county's homeless population, does indeed constitute an emergency," the resolution states.

Some of the provisions within the declaration give the county additional latitude in addressing homelessness and rapid rehousing of homeless individuals and families. They include provisions such as the suspension of standard competitive bidding procedures to obtain necessary goods, services and/or equipment, and using the procedures in the Clackamas County local contract review board rules; redirecting funds for emergency use; ordering other such other measures as are found to be immediately necessary for the protection of life and/or property; authorizing county staff to explore the acquisition, temporarily or permanently, of sites suitable for shelter, temporary housing, or installation of temporary housing units for the homeless population, and to enter into arrangements necessary to prepare or equip such sites to support and use those housing units; and the waiver of Clackamas County code regulations, administrative rules, and fees to the extent necessary and possible to respond to the housing emergency.

The emergency declaration is retroactively effective beginning Aug. 1, 2020, and is set to expire Aug. 1, 2021.

Commissioners heard from county staff regarding the need to continue the declaration and voted unanimously to reapprove it at their Thursday, Aug. 13, business meeting.

Commissioner Sonya Fischer told her colleagues that she's particularly concerned about sheltering the county's homeless population this winter and hopes to hear some specific plans from Health, Housing, and Human Services senior policy analyst Vahid Brown.

According to Brown, the county is looking at models similar to what Multnomah County has done in recent years, which includes purchasing entire blocks of motel rooms at a negotiated price.

"In many cases, this is all available rooms of a motel, and at a scale that would meet the expected need looking at data from previous winters and numbers of people in winter warming shelters," Brown said. "Now, of course, the reason we're looking at alternatives is because our historic approach is congregate shelter, where you have many people in a room sleeping in a warm building and out of the elements. Under the pandemic, that's not an option for obvious reasons."

According to Brown, Health, Housing, and Human Services (H3S) is looking to acquire as many rooms as possible using a mixture of CARES Act dollars and funds already allocated under this emergency declaration in order to be able to distance those who need emergency shelter in the winter months.

Unfortunately, those CARES Act dollars have parameters such as housing those who are in vulnerable populations or over a certain age, so housing younger homeless people would require the use of other funds.

Brown said H3S is looking into applying for FEMA match dollars to fulfill this portion of funding for the upcoming winter, but whether or not they'll be approved for that match is still up in the air.

"These are less than ideal approaches that we would be forced to explore," he said. "And of course, those are the kinds of things that, in the past in facing these kinds of restraints in responding to emergency shelter, we've relied on this emergency resolution in flexibility to do so."

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