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Homelessness in Washington County isn't getting worse, 'but it's not appreciably getting better.'

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: PETER WONG - Annette Evans, center right, briefs Washington County commissioners on the ninth year of the county's 10-year plan to help people without permanent homes at a Nov. 28 session. Seated to her left is Val Valfre, who retired Nov. 30 as executive director of the Housing Authority of Washington County.Washington County, unlike others in the Portland metro area, has seen no real increase in the number of people without homes in the past few years.

But the county's coordinator of homeless programs says there has been no real decrease either.

"It's not worse," Annette Evans told county commissioners Nov. 28 during an update of the ninth year of a 10-year county plan intended to end homelessness. "But it's not appreciably getting better."

In the past four point-in-time counts going back to 2014, the numbers of "unsheltered" people, who live in places not considered suitable for residence, such as a vehicle — were stayed stagnant at between 350 and 400. The numbers in temporary shelters for the same years also stayed stagnant, between 175 and 195.

The numbers are better than previous years, however. The county's worst year to date was 2010, when there were 702 "unsheltered" people and 248 sheltered. The low point was in 2013, with 232 and 200.

Overall totals for Clackamas County went up 4 percent between 2015 and 2017, and for Multnomah County, 9.9 percent, although the number of "unsheltered" dropped by almost 12 percent because of vigorous shelter efforts in that county.

None of these totals count homeless students, who are tallied under a different process by the Oregon Department of Education. Washington County's number of homeless students for 2016-17 was 2,393.

Still, Board Chairman Andy Duyck praised Evans, who has worked for the county since 2005.

Duyck said he was a skeptic when, as a commissioner, the board adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness back in June 2008.

"But it's clear that if you take out the effects of a recession and the lack of housing supply we currently have, you have made a significant improvement," Duyck said. "It's commendable that you have done what you said you would do."

The county budget included $150,000 from the all-purpose general fund to help families with emergency rent and keep them from losing their housing. The goal was to aid 50 families; the actual number helped was 102.

"We've made a lot of bricks given how little straw we have given you," Commissioner Greg Malinowski said.

The county began Community Connect, a single-point service for people seeking help with housing and other matters, back in 2014.

Housing-first policy

Washington County spends relatively little of housing money on emergency shelters. Evans said the emphasis by the county and its partner agencies is housing first: Keep people from losing their housing, or put them into other housing as quickly as possible.

"It's a smarter way to spend money," Commissioner Dick Schouten said.

Evans said she is not critical of how others handle their problems.

But she said that as Washington County's population grows — and people move away from Portland's central city in search of housing — the county can expect to exert greater efforts that will require more state and federal aid.

"While we know that surrounding jurisdictions have much greater needs and higher homeless populations, we also know that if we are to tackle this problem totally, we may need additional funding," she said.

"We don't want anybody to be at a deficit. But if we are to truly address this as a county, as we go forward with our strategies, we need to be able to share with our federal and state partners what is happening here."

An advisory committee is preparing a recommendation to renew the $150,000 available for rent aid for a second year, plus $500,000 for the county and others to develop housing opportunities for people who earn between 30 and 50 percent of median income. (The county's current median income — half above and half below the mark — is $74,700.)

Housing is defined by federal guidelines as "affordable" if costs do not exceed 30 percent of income.

Evans said the committee also is preparing a seven-year follow-on to the original 10-year plan, through 2024, titled "A Road Home." A draft will be unveiled in April, and the county commissioners will consider it in June.

Cost and supply

Evans said that despite some apparently recent tempering in rents, based on data supplied by Multifamily Housing Northwest, Washington County remains unaffordable for many.

For example, she said, Social Security recipients have seen their monthly benefits increase by an overall 5.2 percent in the past five years — there was no cost-of-living increase in 2015 — but housing costs went up 34 percent. (A 2 percent increase will take effect Jan. 1.)

Also, she said, there is simply no housing available for low-income families.

"Now we do not have landlords holding units for homeless people — and they want three times the rent-to-income ratio, which screens out anyone working minimum wage full time," she said.

Evans said the housing shortage is particularly hard on people being released from community corrections, jail or prison, or mental health and addiction treatment.

Vacancy rates for rentals in Beaverton/Aloha, Hillsboro and Tigard/Tualatin remain in the single digits, according to Multifamily Housing Northwest.

Evans acknowledged that the county's recent homeless counts might have missed many who are living in their cars and other vehicles.

She said she came to that conclusion after a recent meeting of one of the community participation organizations, when she and Commissioner Bob Terry faced an audience of 70, three times the number they expected.

"They are seeing individuals far from town living out there," she said.

"They (without homes) are very mobile and living around the community. We are missing those who are moving further away from core centers into more rural areas."

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