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Panel of experts shine light on East County's houseless community and solutions for elected leaders.

COURTESY PHOTO: MCSO - A group of experts and elected officials are attempting to better understand the houseless crisis in East Multnomah County. Folks in East Multnomah County find themselves houseless for a variety of reasons — mental health or addiction issues, loss of a job/income, illness or injury.

Sometimes they just get stuck.

That's what happened to Wayne and Victoria, a couple living out of a pickup in Troutdale. Wayne lost his job driving a logging truck while coping with ongoing medical problems, and his wife also had mounting medical bills. Their family and support system lives in Texas, so the couple attempted to travel from Northern Washington to the Lone Star State. They ran out of gas in East Multnomah County, floundering with the money they scrapped together going toward medicine.

"They had no clear way out of the situation," said Lt. Doug Asboe, who helms the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Homeless Outreach and Programs Engagement (HOPE) Team.

At long last, they connected with the HOPE Team, which made repairs to the pickup and provided gas money. A few weeks later, Wayne and Victoria sent a photo to the HOPE Team — the "Welcome to Texas" sign.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Councilors Wendy Lawton and Jairo Rios-Campos were two of the hosts of the forum."There are a lot of areas where housed individuals think everyone who is houseless is a criminal or addicted to drugs — that's just not true," Asboe said. "They truly are members of the communities where they are now experiencing houselessness."

A Houseless Forum was hosted, online and in-person, Tuesday evening, Jan. 18, at Wood Village City Hall, 24200 N.E. Halsey St., by Wood Village Mayor Scott Harden, and East County City Councilors Sandy Glantz, Wendy Lawton and Jairo Rios-Campos, representing a mix of leaders from Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale.

A panel of experts offered facts and anecdotes about the houselessness crisis in East County. They were Lt. Asboe; Molly Frye, a social worker with the Reynolds School District; and Andy Miller, executive director of Human Solutions.

"Houselessness has always been a challenge in East County, but the pandemic has made this crisis bigger and more visible," Lawton said. "We wanted to learn more about the houseless and share what we are learning with you."

Watch the Forum:

The Houseless Forum is available online at the City of Wood Village YouTube page.

Who are the houseless?

The Reynolds School District has one of the highest percentages of houseless students across the state.

In 2021 the district had 750 students report as homeless, though experts believe that number doesn't account for all students struggling to find a place to live. Those students have more difficulties navigating the school system, and without education there are few paths forward.

"Education is the only way out of poverty unless someone has an incredible talent or wins the lottery," Frye said.

Frye spoke of one family and the lengths they went to ensure their kids continued their education. Both parents lost their jobs, couldn't afford rent, and took the last spot in a shelter in Tigard.

To get their kids to school at Reynolds High School, their mom would wake up at 4:30 a.m., catch a bus with her kids, jump on MAX, and then transfer to another bus, all to make it before morning bell.

"She was moving heaven and earth," Frye said. "Imagine what she and her kids could have accomplished with just a little help."

COURTESY PHOTO: ALISON CASWELL - Camping has been occurring in the Sandy River Delta near Troutdale for 20 years. According to Lt. Asboe, the average homeless person in East Multnomah County is a single adult white male. In this area most tend to choose to sleep outdoors, in a tent or under a tarp, rather than in a car or RV. Most have been houseless for more than a year, and were former residents of East County.

"That's unique to this area, having the majority of houseless individuals being from this community," Asboe said.

Andy Miller, with Human Solutions, which runs an emergency shelter, supportive housing, employment, and provides rent and energy assistance and 17 affordable housing complexes, including Fairview Arms, put numbers to the houseless.

He said there are likely between 2,500 to 5,000 unsheltered people living in the county, with another 2,000 sheltered, but still homeless, each night.

There are 15,000 "effectively homeless" people, who may be squatting, doubled-up, or living in a way that doesn't fit the traditional definition but still are not in stable living. Finally there were 26,000 people who received prevention services in 2021.

"What we are doing is working, just not for everybody," Miller said. "We are still seeking a systemic solution of providing housing differently."

A thousand problems

The forum came after a dust-up late last year that had differing points of view on how to deal with houseless camps.

A cleanup led by Troutdale City Councilor Alison Caswell at the Sandy River Delta natural area, commonly called Thousand Acres by locals, divided elected officials and spurred warnings from police the action may have been illegal.

COURTESY PHOTO: MCSO - The MCSO Hope Team works with houseless individuals across East Multnomah County. "There's a lot of bad stuff happening in Thousand Acres," said Caswell, who organized the cleanup via public Facebook group, Coalition to Protect Thousand Acres. "It's really way, way worse than people have been trying to make it out."

Caswell and her team of roughly 30 volunteers attempted to make a difference during a cleanup on September 25. The group used a tractor with a bucket attachment to move 4,000 pounds of trash to a preexisting pick-up site operated by service providers, Caswell said.

In the aftermath two campers told a sheriff's deputy that personal belongings were removed, according to a police report obtained by the Pamplin Media Group.

"They are taking things from our homes. No one asked them for their help. We organize our own trash service here," a woman named Trish said, per the report, which noted that she was upset because the group "wasn't just cleaning up abandoned camps but also camps of people who were simply not home."

That is one of the biggest barriers to getting folks into shelters, Asboe said, as many don't want to leave behind all of their possessions.

Caswell said she applied for a permit from the Department of State Lands, but the agency never responded.

"When (the campers) start paying taxes, then they get a voice," Caswell told a deputy, per the report.

But that mindset isn't shared by all elected leaders in East County.

"It's not fair to ask people not to camp or demand that they not camp if we don't have any place to put them," said Mayor Harden. "That's just common sense and having a heart."

COURTESY PHOTO: MCSO - One myth addressed during the forum is that offering services and support lead to houseless people staying on the streets.

Addressing myths

The great myth of houselessness, Asboe said, is that those living on the streets want to be there.

"There is a very small percentage who truly want to be houseless," Asboe said. "When we first talk to folks they may tell us, 'I want to be homeless,' but that is because the system has let them down."

"After a few contacts, and being able to provide options and access to resources, they often will go into a shelter," he added.

Asboe said East County needs more wraparound services and local access, with the services going to people where they are.

"We could add a mental health clinician, addiction specialist, housing specialist, to our team," Asboe said.

The panel spoke about needing modernized shelters, moving away from open-bay shelters to more private spaces for a sense of safety and security; storage facilities for those who do move into shelter so they don't lose their belongings; and more housing in general.

"I've heard it said if we keep giving folks food, water and shelter, it keeps them homeless," Asboe said. "I disagree, what we are doing is removing barriers so they can find shelter."

Many of the experts agreed the main emphasis needs to be bringing more housing into the region, because without a place to be safe, there will be little headway into truly helping the houseless.

"We believe many people will make different choices after feeling a period of stability and autonomy with living in a home after being outside for a long period of time," Miller said. "We think there should be a right to housing — everybody deserves a place to live."

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