OPINION: Streets cannot be a 'waiting room' for permanent housing
Across the United States, we are faced with the reality of an underproduction of all types of housing. In Oregon, we are short about 110,000 units, most of them being affordable housing units.
What does that mean for Washington County?
In 2017, Portland State University's Homeless Research Action Collaborative (HRAC) estimated that 38,000 people experienced homelessness across the tri-county region. This count used the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless. It includes individuals who lack a fixed regular and adequate nighttime residence and includes individuals who are doubled up by necessity and not by choice.
If I were to ask you to participate in a visualization exercise, describe to me what you see when you think of the word "homeless" or "homelessness," the first image that likely comes to mind — if you live in the Aloha area — are the encampments that can be seen on Shaw Street and 197th Avenue and Baseline Street, or perhaps an individual who can be seen sleeping on the sidewalk or in their vehicle.
In 2022, the number of people counted on the streets, in shelters, and in transitional housing in Washington County was 808. Of those counted, 171 people were under the age of 18.
That bears repeating: There are 171 kids in Washington County that are struggling with housing security.
Language is powerful and shapes the way that we think and how we feel. If the frame of reference for "homelessness" is directly tied to encampments and the garbage that accompanies them, it can make it uncomfortable and perhaps impossible to try to imagine a reality in which a proposed solution is to invite our outside neighbors to become integrated members of our communities.
We need to change the narrative.
I attended a talk recently that emphasized that we are seeing people as what they have become instead of seeing people for where they have been. That really resonated with me. Individuals living on the streets are more likely to report chronic health conditions, trauma, substance misuse and mental health issues than those who are temporarily sheltered.
Seeing people for where they have been means that we need to make sure that we are providing support in dignified ways. I believe that tiny pod villages can do that.
Homelessness happens to all types of people. They need a place to start over, a place to escape the glaring stares of the public, and a place to heal.
According to Katricia Stewart of HRAC, "Solutions to homelessness should be safe and support the dignity and humanity of people experiencing homelessness…"
According to HRAC's recent report, one of the top concerns (44%) that neighbors had before the pod village opened was the behavior of residents, but once the village was opened, that concern decreased by almost half (29%). Attitudes shifted with experience and made room for the narrative to change in these communities.
This idea isn't new. There are tiny pod villages across the United States, including right here in Oregon.
After seeing the homelessness Point In Time count for 2022, it became clear to me that there is a need to implement this innovative idea in Washington County. In April 2022, I asked our board to direct the staff to do a feasibility analysis of locating two tiny pod village-style shelters, one for veterans and one for non-veterans, within Washington County.
Through the analysis, it was found that these shelter types are feasible in Washington County; however, acquiring land was identified as being the biggest barrier to standing them up. So much so that the county has recently hired a new team member tasked with identifying available land or buildings that can be used for shelter programming.
The streets cannot be the waiting room for permanent housing. The HRAC created the village how-to guide so that anyone could use it. We have this incredible resource at our fingertips, and I believe that by centering our common humanity, we can create a new path towards permanent housing for the residents of Washington County.
Nafisa Fai is a Washington County commissioner representing District 1, which includes most of Beaverton and Aloha. She lives in Aloha.
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