Local experts address Malheur County homelessness, point to broad efforts

Charlene Pelland makes a point at a town hall on homelessness sponsored by the Malheur Enterprise at Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario on Wednesday, Feb. 19. Les Zaitz, Enterprise publisher, officiated the town hall as panelists from local organizations addressed questions from the audience. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

ONTARIO – A one-size-fits-all approach to address the city’s growing homeless population won’t be the most effective way to tackle the issue and a long-term solution will require a broad community effort.

Those two themes – along with the availability of an array of services for the displaced and a lack of housing locally – proved to be key topics at a town hall meeting Feb. 19.

The session, sponsored by the Malheur Enterprise, was held at Four Rivers Cultural Center and attracted more than 80 people.

The forum featured a panel of four representatives from several local service agencies including Community in Action, a local non-profit dedicated to helping the displaced, Lifeways Behavioral Health, the Oregon Department of Human Services and the city of Ontario.

Each member of the panel delivered their view of the local homeless situation and answered questions from the audience and moderator Les Zaitz, the publisher of the Malheur Enterprise.

“Homelessness is a very complex matter for any community,” Zaitz told the audience at the beginning of the forum.

Negative stereotypes, said Zaitz, also play a role in how people view the homeless.

“We want to break down stereotypes,” said Zaitz. “Think hard about your own role in this issue.”

Homelessness features unique circumstances for each individual, said Heather Echeveste, housing program manager for Community in Action.

“No two situations are alike,” said Echeveste.

Echeveste said there are more than 370 homeless people in Ontario, based on a count completed in January and 230 displaced children.

“That is hard to swallow,” said Echeveste.

Liz Johnsen, director of business excellence for Lifeways, focused on the mental health aspect of homelessness and emphasized partnership within the community will be crucial.

“Each of us has a slice,” said Johnsen. “We have special programs for individuals with mental health issues.”

Levi Anderson, an employment and training navigator at the Oregon Department of Human Services, said poverty contributes to the homeless situation.

Malheur County, he said, ranks second in the state in child poverty.

Lack of affordable housing also plays a role, he said.

The search to find adequate housing for people “can be extensive and doesn’t happen overnight.”

Echeveste said her organization works to create “partnerships with local landlords” to provide shelter for the displaced.

The homeless situation can’t be unraveled overnight, said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager.

“This problem is bigger than any single agency can solve,” he said.


Brown said the effort to address the homeless problem in Ontario will mean a high level of cooperation between agencies and, most of all, help from local residents.

“The ultimate success will require lots of volunteers,” said Brown.

Brown said city officials are already moving forward on plans to address homelessness.

“At the request of the council, mayor and the community, I’ve started working with (city) staff to talk about the breadth of this issue and how we deal with that,” said Brown.

Brown said the Ontario City Council has “essentially taken this issue on.” Brown said it will be important in the future for residents, elected leaders and agencies to share ideas.

“As you come up with solutions or ideas, pass them on,” said Brown.

While local agencies offer an array of services there isn’t a single facility where a displaced person or family can go to access those benefits. A new idea, called the Community Housing Task Force, may be the answer, said Brown. The task force was spearheaded by Johnsen and Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action.

“That group probably needs to expand,” said Brown.

He pointed out the city in conjunction with Community in Action and Origins Faith Community Church led an effort to place 20 tiny homes on city-owned property to provide housing for the homeless. Two of the tiny homes are in place at a site in northeast Ontario.

Zaitz tackled the stereotype issue by asking the panel if homeless people were homeless by choice.

Echeveste said some homeless people pick that lifestyle but for most it is not a choice. Many of the homeless work full-time jobs, she said, and still can’t afford housing.

“I couldn’t give a percentage right off my head but the number of people who choose, if it was on a scale, you wouldn’t be able to tell,” said Echeveste.

“I don’t think you can peg homeless into one type,” said Johnsen.

Many homeless also are afraid to seek services because of shame, she said.

“We see a lot of people with a high degree of personal responsibility. They don’t want to be perceived as failures,” said Johnsen.

Anderson said judgments “do get in the way.”

“I think people can feel judged when they reach out for help,” said Anderson.

While a lack of housing was seen as a major obstacle, the meeting was a success because it raised awareness, said Michael Braden, Ontario city councilor.

“We’ve started taking the steps. This will have to be a grassroots effort of neighbors helping neighbors,” said Braden.

Local resident Bill Johnson said after the meeting that the session could help the community prioritize needs of the homeless.

“We’ve got to figure out what does it mean to solve the problem,” said Johnson.

Ontario resident Terry Finnerty said the meeting was informative.

“I think it was good for me to hear about a lot of the stuff they are doing with families. But the community needs to get its head out of the sand and figure out how to deal with it in a positive way,” said Finnerty.

Brown said after the meeting it was a success.

“It was a great turnout. I thought it was really good,” said Brown.

He said local agencies are making progress and assisting the displaced.

“I think what is under appreciated is the hundreds of people they do help year -round,” said Brown.

Hope for a resolution to the homeless situation is on the horizon, said Zaitz.

“This is a caring community but there is hope we can move the needle,” he said.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.