Preserving human dignity? in rural Clackamas County
During a recent town hall meeting, a resident of Sandy told Clackamas County Commissioners that her mother was homeless for two years.
"The trauma and damage of homelessness is real. It can take years to dissipate, if it ever dissipates," said Nina, describing her mother's experience in the shelter system during a virtual meeting about affordable housing and homelessness on Wednesday, April 7. "She was terrified. There was open sex among residents, schizophrenics in crisis, and theft was rampant. Women's shelters, forget about it. She was 70, and women with small children are prioritized. My mother was too ashamed to tell her two adult children she was homeless, so she just kind of sucked it up."
Nina said that she would like to see Clackamas County focus on a housing first model, which prioritizes providing permanent housing to people who are unsheltered.
Nicole, who also lives in Sandy, told commissioners she hopes to see additional resources for unsheltered community members in the county's rural areas.
"We need to treat this harm affecting our community members as a housing emergency crisis, and we need to address this through multiple pathways," she said. "Someone who has been homeless for 20 years and has mental health issues takes longer to stabilize and needs a more intensive level of services. Someone who just lost their job, got evicted and is economically homeless requires a lighter level of services. They're both important."
These are only a few perspectives, but there are hundreds more from unhoused people living in Clackamas County.
Typically, Clackamas County conducts a point-in-time count of unsheltered individuals every two years. This year they received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because the 2019 data from its coordinated housing access system was within 2% of the numbers from that year's point-in-time count.
Along with concerns about safety during the pandemic, Clackamas County Human Services Manager Erika Silver said the surveys often involve asking personal questions and participants might not feel comfortable speaking loudly while social distancing.
According to Clackamas County's 2019 point-in-time count, 48 people in Sandy and 32 in Estacada were unhoused.
County-wide, as is expected, the number of unhoused people is greater in the more urban areas, like nearby Oregon City where one of the two warming shelters that opened for the February 2021 storm was located. There were 306 people unsheltered in Oregon City, 86 in Molalla, 25 in Canby, 3 in Boring and 2 in Damascus.
The number of people experiencing homelessness county-wide that year was 1,166. Though this was a 9% increase from the 1,068 unsheltered people counted in 2017, Silver cautioned comparing data to identify trends in homelessness.
"There are so many factors that can influence (the count), like winter weather and volunteer availability," she said, adding that trust within the community can also influence the numbers in a point-in-time count. "Estacada has a really great food bank, and that's really helped a lot to create trust. Community members trust the food bank and are comfortable sharing (what their situation is)."
According to the county's website, "the majority of those surveyed have been Clackamas County residents for two or more years, and primarily live in Oregon City, Clackamas, Molalla, Milwaukie, Sandy, Estacada or Canby."
"Unaffordable rent, unemployment, eviction, interpersonal conflict and mental or emotional health issues" are cited by the county as the most common issues that push people out of stable housing.
Additionally, the 2019 count found that residents of color disproportionately experience homelessness in Clackamas County. People identifying as Native American/Alaska Native made up 4% of respondents, despite representing only 0.7 percent of the county's total population. People identifying as Black or African American made up 4% of respondents, while representing only 1.2% of the total population.
Though county did not hold the traditional point-in-time count in 2021, food pantries, such as the Sandy Community Action Center, reportedly saw even more families on the brink of homelessness or experiencing financial hardship come through for food boxes.
Pandemic leads to difficulties
The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may have a significant influence on the number of unsheltered people in the community. In April 2020, Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order establishing a state-wide temporary moratorium on certain evictions in response to the pandemic. The moratorium is scheduled to end on June 30.
"We're all getting nervous about what will happen when the rent moratorium ends," Silver said.
Heath Stalcup, who owns around 20 rental properties in the Estacada area, said that none of his tenants have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic. But Stalcup also strives to keep his properties at an affordable cost, estimating that rent is approximately 15% below the market rate.
"We've always had the motto to keep our rentals below market rate. By doing that, we can keep long term tenants," he said, noting that several of his tenants lost work during the pandemic. "In some of the bigger apartment complexes, probably 25% of tenants are in a tough situation."
Brook Rodrigues, rural Clackamas County regional coordinator for Second Home, which connects unhoused youths with host families, said that the Oregon Department of Education's data on the number of homeless students has likely been underreported during the pandemic.
For the 2018-19 school, there were 282 unaccompanied homeless youth across Clackamas County, including 7 in the Estacada School District and 16 in the Oregon Trail School District. During the 2019-20 school year, 232 students were reported as homeless in Clackamas County.
Rodrigues thinks it's unlikely that there were actually 50 fewer homeless students in the county.
"Our organization and our partner organizations all feel that the data for 2019-20 was heavily underreported," she said, noting that students experiencing homelessness will often tell a teacher they trust and this likely wasn't happening as often during distance learning.
All? hands on? deck?
Clackamas County's Coordinated Housing Access program, from which it is drawing this year's homeless count data, connects people with more than 20 assistance programs, including Bridges to Housing, the Clackamas Social Services' Aurora Shelter, Clackamas Women's Services, RentWell Rapid Rehousing and the Clackamas County Veterans Village.
Second Home, which is coordinated by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, began working in Clackamas County in January 2020. The program accepts referrals from school districts and other programs they've partnered with, such as AntFarm.
Second Home has connected one student from the Estacada and Sandy area with a host family.
Rodrigues said that across the state, youths often become homeless with their families first and then move to couch surfing with friends.
"You can't always tell (when a student is experiencing houselessness)," she said. "It looks like a student often sleeping over at a friend's house or staying as late as they can at school because it's a warm place with internet."
While the county offers various programs to aid unhoused people, some of the people most motivated to help are from small nonprofit organizations closer to home.
At Estacada Connects, community members meet every few months to network and share resources about issues facing the community, including housing. An additional group called Estacada Cares was formed to focus on taking additional actions in the community. Eventually, the group hopes to compile a resource guide; create a clothing closet; bring mobile vision, dental and medical services into the community; and explore the feasibility of local transitional housing options.
Additionally, the last September Estacada City Council formed a committee on housing affordability and diversity. During their Feb. 8 meeting, the council appointed nine members to the group, which will be focused on developing a strategy to encourage the construction of more multifamily housing options in the city.
A group in Sandy called Sandy Activity Night (SAN) has offered weekly community dinners and activities for a few years. The group, which was originally formed by Patricia Kendrick and Tamera Strassner to fill a need for community supports for people with developmental disabilities, has since become a broader resource for those in need.
SAN is in the process of becoming a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization so it can receive grant funds to help meet the growing needs of the community. To date, Kendrick said she's been funding a lot of the programs herself.
Kendrick currently sits on the newly founded Sandy Social Services Taskforce formed by the city. Through that taskforce, Kendrick has been involved in trying to get a shower cart set up in Sandy to offer showers to those in need free of charge while also connecting those people to other resources.
In a typical year, Kendrick said the group serves about 20-30 people at the weekly dinner. Since the pandemic began, those numbers have shot up to as many as 90 people.
"It's growing," Kendrick said. "We predominantly feed 90 people a week now. It used to be that 35 people was a big night for us. We don't turn anyone down, but sometimes we run out of food. It just shows you our need is greater than it ever was."
SAN has offered the weekly meal during the pandemic in both take-out and delivery form. Delivery is available for those within five miles of the Sandy Community Church, 39290 Scenic St., where the meals are hosted outside of pandemic times.
Kendrick noted that before the pandemic, she saw fewer people coming for meals at the times when Sandy Area Metro was charging for fare.
When it costs $2 for a round trip to get to the meal, Kendrick explained, many truly in need felt they couldn't afford it and might as well spend $2 for a meal at McDonalds.
"It was no longer a free meal," she said.
Destroying barriers to resources
Because of widespread economic hardship caused by the pandemic, the Sandy transit department paused charging fare for commuting routes last year. The local unhoused population has been taking advantage of the buses as a means to get out of the cold in the winter months.
"I've not necessarily seen an increase in the unhoused population, but I've seen an increase in their usage of the buses," Transit Director Andi Howell explained. "We've seen the local homeless folks riding the buses to get out of the weather. It's the locals that are trying to find somewhere to go. Over the pandemic, we've seen those who really have no place to go."
Howell said making and keeping the in-town shuttle fare-less has helped those on the brink of becoming unhoused retain employment.
Over the course of the pandemic, with the capacity of the buses decreased and many who can working from home, Howell said the ridership has dropped by about 45%. However, those who are riding "don't really have another option."
She added that transit is also represented on the newly formed city social services taskforce, which she hopes will connect the department with other agencies and resources to provide more aid to those in need.
In addition to the recent social services taskforce, which partially addresses homelessness in Sandy, the city council has discussed creating a specific homelessness taskforce.
On April 5, the council, joined by Clackamas County District Attorney community prosecutor Bill Stewart and Maggie Gilman Holm of the social services taskforce, discussed the homelessness issue in Sandy.
Many on the council voiced concerns that creating more resources in town where the city itself has limited funding might heighten the problem by attracting more unhoused from elsewhere to come.
"That's not been our experience. These people (needing these services) are already here," Stewart said.
Stewart has been talking with local organizations and agencies about hosting a shower cart in town, which could create a connection for unhoused people locally to access other resources at the same time.
The idea of busing unhoused folks to existing resources in other areas was also posed at the meeting.
After the meeting, Mayor Stan Pulliam wrote on his Facebook page, that "as local leaders we plan to do what we can to address issues straight on."
"Unlike politicians in neighboring Portland, our local leaders are committed to not accepting homeless camps as permanent fixtures in our community," said Pulliam. "As a result, we have directed our city staff to present us with strengthened ordinances and codes as well as a collaborative approach to generate innovative and compassionate solutions for our neighbors and the homeless community. It's the Sandy way."
Conversations around this taskforce are only beginning and groups involved in the discussion are ready for the challenge.
"(Homelessness) is a community problem, a state problem and a federal problem," Kendrick explained. "This is not something we can just ignore. People want homeless folks to just disappear. The way we make that happen is to make sure we aren't spread thin on resources. We need to have a place for people to go on many levels."
This is part two of a series on homelessness and helping the unhoused in Clackamas County, specifically in Sandy and Estacada. To read the first installment, click here.
Aid for anyone
Clackamas County and various local organizations have programs to help those experiencing poverty or homelessness.
Here are a few:
• If you or someone you know is experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness, please call Coordinated Housing Access (CHA) at 503-655-8575. CHA has successfully placed an average of 242 people into housing each year for the past three years.
• For more information about becoming involved with the Second Home program, visit emoregon.org/second-home.
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