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Campers off Highway 8 near Dairy and McKay creeks reveal gaps in resources for a large homeless population.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Amanda Terpening, a service provider with Project Homeless Connect, enters information about James Matney into her phone as part of the annual homeless Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 27, as Kim Marshall, director of Project Homeless Connect, stands by.With snow on the ground and near-freezing air making the mud hard around a small, tarp-fortified trailer, James Matney stepped outside on his 39th day off heroin.

He has been camping on vacant private property off Highway 8, or Tualatin Valley Highway, near where McKey Creek splits from Dairy Creek in Hillsboro since early December, he said.

In exchange for a cigarette, he allowed Amanda Terpening, a services coordinator at Project Homeless Connect, to ask him questions so he could be included in Washington County's annual point-in-time count.

The count is a federally mandated survey of homeless people. Experts agree the point-in-time count doesn't come close, however, to fully capturing the number of homeless people in any jurisdiction.

But this year, as Washington County enlisted service providers instead of volunteers to conduct the survey due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was another opportunity for Terpening and others to check in on Matney and about 60 other homeless people living on multiple vacant private properties near the highway.

A growing concern

Service providers and local officials say the growth of the camp since this summer shows the many gaps that exist in a network of supportive resources throughout the region, where the number of unhoused people continues to rise, and there is fear that the pandemic will accelerate that trend.

Matney, 27, who grew up in Hillsboro and said he wasn't cold despite shaving his head the day before while it was snowing, has been homeless since he was a teenager. He added he lived without a permanent address with his family for a couple of years.

One day, Matney and others will need to leave the camp. But when that will happen is uncertain.

People have camped in the area for years. Officers with the Hillsboro Police Department have routinely told people, at the property owners' request, they needed to move, city spokesperson Patrick Preston told the News-Times.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hillsboro officials say the amount of garbage, human waste and other materials that has collected at a homeless camp on private property near Highway 8 in Hillsboro has become a health and safety hazard.After rainstorms this winter flooded Dairy and McKay creeks, campers have become more visible to the community, moving to higher ground on the private properties near Highway 8.

Nearby business owners have complained to officials in Hillsboro about the safety of their employees, Preston said.

One camper died in their tent in November, he added. The cause of death hasn't been released.

"The area has become environmentally hazardous due to refuse, drug paraphernalia and human waste, and needs to be vacated for the health and safety of residents and the health of the natural environment," Preston said.

The Hillsboro Police Department has been giving campers trespassing notices for weeks.

Hillsboro has a "trespassing agreement in place" for the camp, Preston said.

"The property owners have stated they do not want people camping on the site," he said.

Project Homeless Connect has been trying to connect people at the camp to mental health, addiction and housing resources for months in coordination with officials at Washington County and Hillsboro.

"The transition process has been and will continue to be gradual," Preston said. "Removal is the last option."

A supportive community

Matney's girlfriend and other supportive people at the Hillsboro camp have helped him not use heroin for more than a month, he said.

Matney has struggled with addiction since he was a teenager, he said. Despite multiple treatment programs over the years, he hadn't been able to stay sober for long.

Before coming to Hillsboro, Matney stayed in the shelter at the Elsie Stuhr Center in Beaverton.

Sobriety was more difficult at the shelter than at the PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - James Matney, who has struggled with homelessness and addiction since he was a teenager, has been camping since early December on a piece of private property near Highway 8 in Hillsboro along with about 60 other homeless people.Hillsboro camp, he said, adding that it was easy to find people who had drugs there.

Before the Beaverton shelter, Matney had a tent along with 60 others at Safe Sleep Village, a temporary outdoor camping facility at Westside Commons.

Washington County set up the facility according to health and safety guidelines using federal coronavirus relief funds to reduce the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in a vulnerable homeless population.

When historic wildfires created hazardous air quality in September, Matney said he received a voucher from the county to stay in a hotel, but his addiction persisted.

He says he overdosed while in the hotel.

"One night in the hotel, I was found unresponsive in the bathtub with the water up high and still flowing," Matney said. "Then I woke up in the hospital."

Some people do heroin because they like the way it makes them feel, Matney said, but that wasn't why he used it.

"Every shot was to kill myself," he said.

Matney said he was glad to hear shelter managers at the Beaverton shelter kicked out people who were providing drugs. He won't try to go back soon, however, in part because the shelter doesn't permit pets and he wants to keep his dog, Teddo, and his cat, which he said are also part of his small support network at the camp in Hillsboro.

"It's one of my biggest support systems," Matney said.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - James Matney doesn't want to try to get into a winter shelter because it would require him to leave his cat and his dog, Teddo, which he says are important supports.A connection to pets, not wanting to give up personal belongings and fears over being around people who could be negative influences are common reasons why many people at the camp in Hillsboro don't want to be on the county's winter shelter network waitlist, says Kim Marshall, director of Project Homeless Connect.

'Where are they supposed to go?'

As of last Thursday, Jan. 28, the county's winter shelter waitlist had 74 people on it, said Annette Evans, Washington County's homeless program coordinator. Of those, 39 people said they lived in the Hillsboro area, and some have said they're living at the camp in Hillsboro, Evans said.

The county estimates there are about 1,000 homeless people living in Washington County, Evans said.

Marshall says the number of people at the camp has ballooned since the summer, when Hillsboro and the county worked to move people off a different growing camp nearby at Dairy Creek Park.

Safe Sleep Village was created in part to move homeless people off public property at places such as Dairy Creek Park, officials said at the time.

According to a 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, homeless people can't be criminally punished for sleeping on public property if there are no other alternatives such as shelters.

Marshall says there is a sense of urgency to help move people off the camp near Highway 8, because law enforcement has started the formal process to have them removed.

But she says the "big question" remains.

"Where are they supposed to go?" Marshall asked.

Pandemic relief funding has allowed Washington County and its cities to support their unhoused populations like never before, Marshall said.

Evans agrees. She said the funding has allowed the county to expand new and existing programs, including its hotel voucher program, day shelters, which provide meals and other basic resources, and the winter shelter network, which has 165 beds available nightly compared to about 120 in previous years.

The opening of another shelter at the Hillsboro Civic Center on Jan. 31 will allow for 30 people on the county's waitlist to be sheltered.

Additional funding for a rapid rehousing program has allowed nine people to obtain permanent housing since the pandemic, Evans said.

"We do know that we have gaps in our homeless response system," Evans said, adding that the county doesn't have a year-round shelter for adults.

She and other officials across the region are eager to create local implementation plans for the recently passed Metro housing supportive services measure, which will create funding for "wraparound" services for people in need of stable housing.

But as governments and service providers await funding from the measure, Marshall says local governments need to take more immediate steps to support people such as those at the camp near Highway 8 in Hillsboro.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Service providers with Project Homeless Connect work to connect with campers on private property near Highway 8 in Hillsboro, where the Hillsboro Police Department has provided some campers with trespassing notices.If they don't, campers will eventually be forced to leave and they'll wind up in even more visible camping places and potentially more dangerous circumstances, she said.

Marshall says the Hillsboro City Council should develop an ordinance that would create conditions to allow people to legally camp on public property.

"We need safe camping ordinances," she said.

Hillsboro or the county could also create a managed outdoor camping facility where people could bring pets and personal belongings, similar to Safe Sleep Village, which closed in November due to extreme weather.

"We are always looking to see what else could we do," said Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway when asked if he would be open to the idea.

Similarly, Evans said governments and service providers need to continue looking for ways to fill gaps in the network of resources.

"The leadership of our cities and our county coming together around these issues is where we will be able to make that huge difference," she said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case from 2018 related sleeping in public. The story has been corrected.

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