In the community

Homeless plan – a lifeline for Malheur County families

SALEM – Malheur County and other rural communities around Oregon will soon be getting additional help from the state to target housing accessibility and homelessness.

Gov. Kate Brown last week announced a new strategy to increase housing affordability and reduce child homelessness – two issues which have grown across the state in recent years.

The plan invests $370 million in housing stability for children, veterans, the chronically homeless, and rural communities.

Emergency housing and homeless help would get $50 million of that, the governor said. In rural parts of Oregon, this would mean more affordable housing options being built in the next couple of years.

Barb Higinbotham, director of Community in Action in Ontario, said that the new housing plan would “support families longer term that are needing support services.”

“I’m heartened by the fact that they’re looking at rural areas,” said Higinbotham. “Part of what I’m trying to work with Oregon Housing and Community Services on is what rural means to all of us.”

According to Higinbotham, the definition of what constitutes a rural community differs across the state but government officials on the west side are “starting to hear and understand” smaller communities in eastern Oregon more.

Brown said in a conference call with reporters last Thursday that the “housing stability council has really focused their work on targeting communities under 25,000, rural communities and people of color.”

She said the goal “is to provide tools and resources in rural communities in order to build more affordable units.”

In recent years, sparse housing options have pushed up prices and increased homelessness.

There were 318 homeless students in Malheur County schools in the 2016-17 school year, according to state date. This year, school officials say that number is closer to 350. The lack of affordable housing is often cited by school and housing officials as one of the causes of the increase.

“There’s not a lot of units available,” said Higinbotham. “I think where we have failed is partly in the production of homes.”

She said the state is short 160,000 homes.

“Statewide people don’t have a decent place to call home,” said Higinbotham.

At Community in Action, there is a “housing first approach” to helping people, she said.

“We think you need to have stable housing before you can stabilize other areas of your life,” she said.

The governor’s plan identified the “lack of capacity of local governments to plan for and facilitate housing development” as one reason rural communities in Oregon struggle with housing.

 In cities like Ontario, the lack of housing options means that many people work in Ontario but live across the border in Idaho.

“It is our belief that people should be able to work, live and shop in communities that they live,” Brown said.

Higinbotham said that the new housing plan would “set our budget at a higher amount” and “help a lot” with the work that Community in Action does.

Higinbotham said that it is a “long term semi-uphill battle to get units in areas and help people in streets.”

Reporter Carolyn Agrimis: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.