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Executive directors take on Clackamas County commissioner for misinformation about homelessness

Leaders of two organizations that provide services to Clackamas County's homeless population want to correct the record on some statements made last week by Commissioner Mark Shull following a 'fact-finding' tour he took of encampments along the Springwater Corridor.

On Tuesday, April 27, Shull told fellow county commissioners that he had some new ideas for how to approach the housing problem after he visited with some homeless individuals and heard their stories. Two of Shull's specific claims gave pause to both Debra Mason, executive director of Clackamas Service Center, and Brandi Johnson, executive director of LoveOne Community.

The first was that Shull said everyone he spoke to on his tour "had some level of self-medication" and that "drugs permeate the issue." The second was that many of those with whom Shull spoke on his visit were from Portland and that "the problem is moving this way."

Mason and Johnson spoke to Pampin Media Group this week about their own experiences and insights as leaders of two organizations that interface with homeless families and individuals on a daily basis in Clackamas County.

Both said they'd listened to Shull's remarks and felt his words perpetuate stereotypes that many have of homeless people.

"Every person we encounter has a different experience of why they are in the situation they're in, and, no, not all of them deal with substance abuse, and no, not all of them have mental health. Are those two issues prevalent? Absolutely. I think all of us would suffer from those things if we were also living outside," Mason said. "So to make sweeping statements that homeless people are all drug addicts — it's very dangerous, and it's untrue."

Johnson said that County Commissioner Paul Savas recently visited an event hosted by her organization where he came out and met with unhoused neighbors, learned their stories and more about LoveOne's work in Milwaukie, Oregon City and Molalla. She said she would love to host Shull in the future and hoped he can make it to one of their events to widen his perspective.

"I invited Commissioner Savas out, and he accepted coming to our event and spoke with neighbors," Johnson said. "To me, that shows respect for all the folks impacted by this issue."

According to Johnson, LoveOne has contact with approximately 200 local unhoused people each month, and of those, she estimates that 80% of them grew up in Clackamas County.

Mason reported similar findings, saying that clients of the Clackamas Service Center often share their stories with staff members and can point out their high school or neighborhood.

Data from Clackamas County's 2019 homeless census showed that a majority of its 1,166 unhoused people were from Clackamas County.

"The 2019 Point in Time count found the majority of people who were experiencing houselessness within the county lived in Clackamas County for two years before losing their housing," said Kimberly Dinwiddie, county public information officer. "Only 11% of total were experiencing homelessness when they moved to Clackamas County."

Both Mason and Johnson said it was necessary to speak up to help residents understand what's going on in their streets as Clackamas County continues to see high levels of unhoused folks year-after-year, and to help them realize that these aren't interlopers, but rather neighbors who have fallen on hard times.

"We're getting away from the notion that these services are a handout. We've got people living in outpatient treatment and sober-living situations who are applying for jobs and getting their identification cards — we're going to be doing that on a bigger scale," Johnson said. "These folks are people with families, and they have stories, and they have traumas. And it's such a personal issue. It can't be addressed as a blanket issue in an effective way, in my opinion."

COVID-19 has posed particular challenges to Clackamas County nonprofits that work with unhoused populations. Mason's organization had to pivot to delivery of products from their market that serves unhoused folks in the North Clackamas area with a variety of things such as food, hygiene items and others. While that process wasn't easy, it provided a learning opportunity to better understand the needs of the community they work with, particularly in that more than 50% of those they serve have some type of disability. This will lead them to continue delivery services, even after the pandemic allows folks to return to their market in person.

Clackamas Service Center and LoveOne are just two of more than a dozen organizations that will likely benefit from the county's allocation of homeless service dollars scheduled to be handed down by Metro in the coming months from the regional government's levy that passed in May 2020. The board of commissioners recently gave its approval to the county's local implementation plan which will oversee allocation of those dollars, set specific goals and milestones, as well as serve as a guide for how to track progress.

Commissioner Mark Shull did not return a request for comment regarding this story.

SHULL'S FULL COMMENTS ON HOMELESSNESS, TUESDAY, APRIL 27

Good morning. Yesterday I had a tour of the Veterans Village. Marine Veteran, Corporal Shawn, showed me around. I was pleased with the appearance and neatness of the facility. The residents I spoke with had very positive remarks to say. And I think that the example of the Veterans Village is an example of something we need to do for some of our other homeless people.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County Commissioner Mark ShullYesterday, I toured homeless encampments in Clackamas County, and it was a very interesting experience for me. I thought I knew a lot about homeless issues, but yesterday I learned a great deal more.

The people that I came across looked like they stepped out of the year 2019 H3S assessment on homelessness in Clackamas County. They had all sorts of different backgrounds, but one thing that I thought was interesting was that they all had some level of self-medication going on, from to back-tar heroin down to marijuana, and other drugs, but drugs permeate the issue. The other thing I found out was that the people I spoke to are from Portland, and, it looks to me like the problem is moving this way. So, the issue with homelessness is so complex, it's kind of mind boggling. And as we see how other cities and counties in the nation have been overwhelmed by it with often very inadequate responses. I'm left with the thought that we are, in fact, entering a period of our next crisis.

The other thing I want to make very clear is that I was impressed with the humanity of the people I talked to yesterday. They were all articulate. They were all conscious, some of them were, some I came in to contact with were comatose. I mean, they were out of it. But there is an overwhelming sadness, a kind of heartbreak of humanity, if you will. People who have dropped out of the system for all sort of different reasons and cannot quite find their way back. They're incapable of getting back to normal life. They do need help.

So I just wanted to make a couple comments on ideas:

We have been building supportive housing, and doing a good job at it. But those projects will not get the numbers off the street that we need to help. And by the way, let me say this — everyone who owns property in a business around these encampments is suffering. And many of them are leaving.

We have a responsibility to them as well, so putting somebody who is on fentanyl, methamphetamine and black-tar heroin into a supportive-housing situation is not going to work. We need an immediate response, and that's got to look like a military bivouac. Something simple, affordable, but to get them off the street, into a safe environment. Maybe with their showers and restaurants.

Two, after they are there, we need to have an ongoing mental health and drug addiction support. Then, into another phase of longer term temporary, mini houses, if you will. Many of these people on the street yesterday said that's what they're looking for. That would be for people who have been some degree of mental health and drug addiction help.

Finally, our fourth phase needs to be some sort of mini-house project, planned community. Small houses for people who have recovered, got a job and can go to work.

Everyone I talked to, no matter how horrible their situation was — and I saw people who their bodies were literally burning up from methamphetamine — they said to me: "Commissioner, I just want to have a chance to help myself. I don't want a handout, I want help up."

They're all looking for dignity and self-respect, and you cannot give away, with taxpayer money, dignity and self-respect.

So that's where we're at. And I say this today because we are in a "Go" situation. We must act. We must act in unconventional ways. And we must do everything opposite of what Portland's doing, because Portland is not helping Clackamas County.


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