County homeless population grows

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – The homeless come to Angie Uptmor every day for help.

Sometimes they arrive alone at the Community in Action building at 915 S.W. 3rd Ave. Sometimes they arrive with family. All seek assistance and Uptmor delivers as much as she can.

But the challenge for Uptmor, the housing program manager for Community in Action, isn’t getting any easier.

That’s because the homeless population in Malheur County jumped by more than 50 percent and the key need, housing for the displaced, isn’t available. In 2015, a one-day count by the state identified 104 homeless individuals living in Malheur County. This year, that climbed to 151.

“We have families coming in every day living in their car. We work as hard as we can to find them somewhere to live but in the meantime, there is nowhere for them to live but their car or van,” said Uptmor.

Those who do not have a vehicle, though, often end up spread out across the county, camped by the Snake River or any place with shelter.

With winter on the way, the homeless circumstance is about to get a whole lot more complicated as Malheur County has no shelter. So, what happens to the homeless when winter arrives?

“That’s a good question and I don’t have the answer to it,” said Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action.

Higinbotham said there were few options for the county’s homeless population during winter.

“Some of the homeless people do have some kind of income coming in, maybe disability or pension funds or sometimes they pool the money and they rent a house. And some just tough it out,” said Higinbotham.

There are homeless youth, Higinbotham said, but Community in Action doesn’t have a firm number on how many.

In part that is because federal rules define a person as homeless if they do not have a roof over their head and don’t live in a habitual dwelling.

Homeless youth are prone to “couch surfing,” going from one house to another each night, said Uptmor. That means they do not technically qualify as homeless under federal criteria.

“Plus, many youth don’t want to be identified,” said Higinbotham.

Uptmor said Community in Action considers two different types of homeless – sheltered and unsheltered. A sheltered homeless person is someone living in a motel where someone else is paying for the lodging. Unsheltered is an individual living on the street.

“Most are unsheltered,” said Uptmor.

Community in Action statistics from 2017 showed 43 homeless were sheltered and 108 were unsheltered.

Determining why there are more homeless is hard, said Uptmor.

“Finding housing is really hard. We just have a shortage of housing and apartment units and places for people to live,” said Uptmor.

For example for a two-bedroom home in Ontario, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development allows $681 a month for rent and utilities.

That isn’t enough in Malheur County, said Uptmor.

“Finding a place that is weatherized is impossible. And utilities are so high,” said Uptmor.

Uptmor and Higinbotham said a relatively new community action group – the Homeless Task Force – is a good step toward addressing the homeless issue.

The task force consists of residents and public officials and meets once a month in the Ontario City Council chambers.

“We are trying to get more attention to those meetings so we can move forward as a community,” said Higinbotham.

At last Thursday’s task force session about a dozen people Ontario City Manager Adam Brown and City Councilor

Marty Justus – tossed around ideas to meet the homeless problem.

Payette residents Sonny and Gaye Selover said they want to build one-person houses somewhere in Malheur County for the homeless. Justus pointed out that while the one-person home – usually referred to as a tiny house — is a good idea, the process isn’t simple.

Such a project must clear a number of city, county and possibly state zoning regulations. For example, if a piece of property was donated by the city for a small park for the homes, that parcel of land may trigger a change to the Ontario’s comprehensive plan. That, in turn, means navigating through city regulations and then holding public meetings.

“We’d have to have the land. Then we’d have to work with the city council,” Brown said. “State regulations and local building and zoning regulations are not designed for tiny houses.”

Brown said finding an answer to the homeless situation is a high priority for the council.

“There are many on the city council who are passionate about addressing the need,” said Brown.

Uptmor said ultimately the homeless issue is one that the community must address and help solve.

“I think the thing we’ve been talking about the most is trying to figure out who is responsible. We have a small amount of funding that is designated to help the homeless in our community but it isn’t enough to make a huge difference,” said Uptmor.

Higinbotham said the best answer is a permanent shelter.

“I think that is, potentially, what we are looking toward — some type of extreme weather shelter. We need the ability to run it and have to have the structure around it to support it,” said Higinbotham.

For more than 13 years Harvest House in Ontario operated as a day shelter for the homeless but closed last year because of a lack of money. The day shelter offered meals and showers.

A combined effort between Community In Action, Project DOVE and the Oregon Food Bank kept the facility open until June. From July 1, money contributed by Vale, Nyssa, Ontario city governments and Malheur County kept the doors of the facility open until the building was sold in August.

Subsequently, a new meal site was set up at Origins Faith Community Church at 312 N.W. 2nd St., in Ontario. The hours of the new meal site are Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 4:30.

“It is a wonderful relationship with Origins but we have limited ability. We don’t have storage there for additional food or items that are donated,” said Higinbotham.

Have a news tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected]