If an earthquake toppled the homes of 20,000 people tomorrow, Oregon Community Foundation CEO Max Williams suspects those people wouldn’t be left to sleep under a bridge.
Schools and churches would be turned into emergency shelters. FEMA would show up with tents and RVs. Nonprofits would send teams of workers to build new homes.
When thousands of people are made homeless through other circumstances — job loss, addiction, no-cause eviction — it’s a different story.
“People make choices, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they’re people and deserve to be treated humanely,” Williams said.
OCF, a public charity with more than $2 billion in assets, commissioned a study by ECONorthwest earlier this year on the root causes of homelessness in Oregon and recommendations for reducing it.
A housing problem
Casual observers tend to think addiction and mental illness cause most homelessness, because those populations tend to be the most visible. But the EcoNorthwest report cites a national study by economists John Quigley and Steven Raphael that also ties homelessness to housing costs. A 10% increase in rent costs correlates to a 13.6% increase in homelessness, they found.
The report also points to relatively low homeless populations in states with high addiction rates but low housing costs, such as West Virginia.
“There’s a pretty clear relationship with the cost of housing,” Williams said.
While the chronic, “unsheltered” homeless are the most visible, more common are the thousands of Oregonians who end up discretely sleeping in their car, in a garage or on a friend’s couch for a few months at a time after not being able to afford rent.
“The hidden homeless move in and out of homelessness,” Williams said. “They’re always on the edge economically. One bad car repair or medical bill will put them over.”
Scarcity of housing drives up prices and makes it hard to find a vacancy that will fit the renter’s needs. The top two recommendations of the OCF report are increasing housing built at all price points and increasing the availability of affordable housing through vouchers, rent control and other methods.
Hermiston, Umatilla and Stanfield have been focused on tackling the housing problem in recent years. Several new subdivisions and a low-income apartment complex nearly complete on Sixth Street have been announced in Hermiston. Developers have been building new homes every month in Umatilla. In Stanfield, developers will break ground next spring on 40 new homes available to low-income residents.
Hermiston School District’s liaison for homeless students, Lisa Depew, said a shortage of affordable housing in Hermiston is definitely a factor in displacing some local families. Some might end up living out of a van, while others “double up” in an apartment with another family.
“Affordable housing is a huge component of what some of our families are exposed to,” she said.
Right now the district only has 13 students classified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act — much lower than the 80 or so students who were on that list when Depew first took over. She said definitions of homelessness have tightened over time, but whether a student officially meets the definition or not, there are plenty of “wraparound” services available to students in need.
Bryn Browning, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said those services include making sure students have transportation to school and that they have whatever clothing, equipment and other supplies they need to fully participate in the classroom and in extracurricular activities.
The district also provides free breakfast to every student and free lunch to low-income students to make sure all students are having their nutrition needs met. Schools identify students who are going hungry on weekends and send home bags of food put together by the Agape House and local churches.
It’s not just students who experience homelessness.
Both Pendleton and Hermiston have warming stations that offer a place to sleep at night during below-freezing weather, but are lacking year-round accommodations.
“There’s no shelter here for the homeless, and that’s a real big need,” said Major DeWayne Hallstad of the Pendleton Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army serves free lunch to homeless residents six days a week. Hallstad said there were 73 people at the meal on Thursday.
In Hermiston, meals, warm clothing and other resources are available at Desert Rose Ministries, 512 E Main St. in Hermiston.
Several churches also provide free meals to people in need, including the Hermiston Seventh-day Adventist Church (5:30-6:30 p.m. each Wednesday at 855 W. Highland Ave.), First Christian Church (11 a.m. on Mondays at 775 W. Highland Ave.), First United Methodist Church (11 a.m. Thursdays at 191 E. Gladys Ave.) and Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church (10:45 a.m. Fridays at 565 W. Hermiston Ave.).
The Hermiston Warming Station is also preparing to open this winter, with trainings for volunteers on Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 5 at 11 a.m. and Oct. 6 at 1 p.m. at the station, 1075 S. Highway 395.
Anyone who is homeless or at risk of being homeless is invited to a Project Community Connect and Veteran Stand Down event Oct. 12 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Hermiston Community Center, 415 S. Highway 395. It will include free resources, such as hygiene supplies, health screenings, haircuts, veterinary care and information on year-round services.
The most difficult situations for communities to deal with are the chronic, unsheltered homeless — those who have been living on the streets for years. According to ECONorthwest, Oregon, Washington, California and Hawaii together hold more than half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population.
And yet, Williams said, those four states are receiving significantly fewer federal funds for affordable housing than some states on the east side of the country.
“We need to figure out how to better get our share of federal funds,” he said.
According to the report, Oregon represents 1.3% of the total U.S. population, but 5.6% of the country’s chronically homeless who are sleeping outdoors.
Methods for counting homeless residents are imprecise. Annual “point in time” counts rely on volunteers hitting the streets to try to find as many self-reported homeless people as possible, in addition to organizations like warming stations taking a census of those who walk through their doors that month.
In 2018, Umatilla County organizations counted 511 homeless residents, 57% of which were located in Pendleton.