More than 100 community members from across Clackamas County tuned into a virtual town hall Wednesday, April 7, discussing the issue of homelessness and how the county can respond to help identify creative solutions to address the growing crisis.
Lasting about an hour and a half, the forum provided a space for county residents, business leaders, nonprofit employees and others to chime in and provide their experience on what different kinds of housing is needed throughout the community, and how Clackamas County could work with community partners and developers to incentivize the creation of those units.
Four members of the Board of County Commissioners — minus Chair Tootie Smith, who is out of the office this week — listened as more than two dozen community members called in via Zoom and by email testimony to offer their point of view.
One of the most widely expressed opinions Wednesday evening included calling on the county to look at ways to allow faith-based organizations and nonprofits to use property they own to build "truly" affordable housing.
Pastor Heather Riggs of Oak Grove United Methodist and Co-Pastor Anna Hoesly with Storyline Commnity both spoke about how they're part of a group called the Clackamas Land and Housing Cohort which aims to leverage their land to meet the housing needs of Clackamas County.
Both religious leaders echoed each other's comments in answering the questions posed by the county, saying that all levels of housing are currently needed in Clackamas County in order to address the ongoing crisis from top to bottom. They also called on the county to support legislative efforts in Salem that would open the door to creative solutions that mobilize the faith-based communities seeking to help.
"Don't forget about us; we want to build affordable housing," Riggs said. "All levels of housing are needed right now and we need to think flexibly. Find ways to let the church be the church."
Commissioner Sonya Fischer chimed in following Riggs' testimony, thanking the pastor for her comments and asking her colleagues whether they'd be interested in instructing County Administrator Gary Schmidt to work with county staff to find ways to get the county's regulations out of the way so these faith-based organizations can operate more freely in addressing homelessness.
Vice Chair Paul Savas, along with Commissioners Martha Schrader and Mark Shull, all gave a thumbs up in agreement that they'd support that effort.
Another common theme of Wednesday's testimony was that any and all new housing efforts must include supportive services — also known colloquially as "wraparound services" — to ensure that those being served by the county's housing efforts aren't allowed to fall back into homeless due to factors such as mental health, lack of workforce training or substance abuse.
Representatives of service providers such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness of Clackamas County, Clackamas Women's Services and others showed up to testify that these services are critical to the overall health, safety and success of those served by the Housing Authority of Clackamas County.
The notion of bringing a "housing first" model to Clackamas County was also kicked around by several callers, which would prioritize permanent housing as a way to help bring stability to the lives of those who have struggled with housing.
Following Wednesday evening's forum, Savas said he's going to use what he learned to push for more opportunities to recapture the success Clackamas County has had with its Veterans Village in building small, tiny-home communities and providing those wraparound services directly to residents to help them transition to more permanent housing.
"Why are we not moving on the affordable options? Why aren't we moving on what's happening around the country with people trying to actually build that kind of stuff," Savas said.
Savas agreed with much of the testimony he heard Wednesday, that if wraparound services aren't prioritized and paired with affordable housing options, the county's homeless population isn't being served as best it can.
Fischer said she was heartened by wide interest in the town hall and is excited to figure out what ideas will work for Clackamas County, specifically around getting the county's and state's zoning regulations out of the way for faith-based organizations to help address the current crisis.
"We hear the faith community saying, 'We have this resource and we want to help, but are stopped,'" Fischer said. "That is ridiculous. That was one of my huge takeaways, is to get to the bottom of this and figure out where those barriers are."
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