My View: Region must solve homelessness together
On May 16, the Portland Tribune published an editorial board interview with Mayor Ted Wheeler ("Wheeler defends homeless response"). Over the course of that conversation, Wheeler stated that Washington County has "zero adult shelter beds" that are funded by the county.
I wanted to take this opportunity to correct that statistic, provide some information about what services Washington County does provide, and talk about where we can be doing more.
Every year the county performs a Point in Time count that provides a profile of the demographics of the county's residents who are homeless. It is a one-night count where agency staff and volunteers go into the field to identify those who are unhoused or are in shelters.
This year's count had 131 staff and volunteers in the field. They identified 530 people who fit the federal definition of homeless; of those, nearly 300 were in some form of shelter.
Currently, Washington County directly funds 97 year-round shelter beds out of the county's general fund that provide housing for families with children, runaway and homeless youth, and people fleeing domestic violence. Additionally, the county partners with community organizations and has identified another 28 shelter beds that are funded through city and community resources.
In addition to shelter beds, the county and our partner agencies provide 495 units of permanent supportive housing, 119 units of transitional housing, and 230 units of rapid re-housing (which is permanent housing). All told, there are a total of 969 beds that are funded with a variety of city, county, state and federal dollars here in Washington County.
Like so many other local governments, Washington County has found itself in a crisis as more of our neighbors become unhoused. However, it was a conscious policy decision on the part of Washington County to invest in a Housing First model.
That means one of our primary goals is keeping people from becoming homeless in the first place through emergency prevention assistance while providing permanent housing to homeless adults and families with children, which is where our rapid re-housing and rent subsidy programs fit into the picture.
Our goal is to transition people off the streets into affordable permanent housing, rather than into temporary shelter. This has allowed our community to respond more quickly to our community's needs and with great levels of success.
While it was important for us to get this information about our services out to the public, I must agree wholeheartedly with Mayor Wheeler that homelessness and the affordability crisis are absolutely a regional issue. And we must all work together to solve it.
That's why, as chair, I am committed to working from a community-needs perspective. I intend to work diligently with my board colleagues to better understand and address those needs.
Our regional partners can expect to see us at the table, working to find solutions that make sense regionally, while still making sure they are "right sized" for our own communities.
I know we can always do better, and I appreciate the concerns voiced by Wheeler.
I look forward to working directly with his office and with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, along with so many other of our regional partners as we continue to tackle this crisis.
We are in this together. And I am confident that, working together, we will continue to find solutions that fit the communities we serve and our neighbors who are most in need of our help.
Kathryn Harrington is chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
If you or someone you know is experiencing housing instability or are currently without shelter in Washington County, call 503-640-3263.