Local government

Ontario mayor seeks help from border board to tackle homeless challenge

ONTARIO – Mayor Riley Hill wants to solve the city’s homeless challenge and to get help he recently reached out to the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board.
Hill said recently there is an “ongoing conversation” with the board regarding financial support to boost the city’s effort to address the growing number of unhoused individuals in town.
Now, there are more than 300 homeless in Ontario, according Mike Iwai, Ontario Police chief.
Yet what exactly that support from the board will be remains hazy.
Hill’s idea is to hire a coordinator to unite all of the agencies and nonprofits in the local area to develop a plan to address the homeless situation. The border board could fund the new job.
“It’s still all very much in general terms to get everyone on the same page and find a solution,” he said.
Hill said the board was interested in the concept but made no commitment.
Shawna Peterson, the board’s executive director, said the board is intrigued but wants more information.
“The border board is interested in sorting out what, if any, role we’d have,” said Peterson.
Peterson said the board wants to do more research on the issue and she will soon reach out to the major cities in the county to gather input on the homeless situation.
“We do feel like it’s an issue that affects economic development in the border region but it is kind of nebulous at this point,” said Peterson.
Peterson said the board wants to define exactly what it could do to help.
She said the board is “definitely expressing an interest to be part of the solution and even putting up money to address it.”
“We want to make sure we identify the issues. It is not a hard stop for us to fund a position but, of course, we worry about sustainability about something put in place,” said Peterson.
Peterson said the board must consider whether funding a coordinator would be the best course and whether that person would be a full-time or part-time employee or a contractor.
Board member Tiffany Cruickshank said collecting information regarding homelessness is important.
“We need data before we can make some sort of decision about what we could potentially do with this issue,” said Cruickshank.
Some money is available after the board received $6 million from the Oregon Legislature.
The border board is discussing priorities for the money in a “deliberate and intentional” way, said Peterson.
Peterson said her plan is to be able to deliver information on the homeless issue to the border board in November.
Hill said his effort can be traced to a September briefing by Ontario Police Chief Mike Iwai to the Ontario City Council, Iwai offered steps – including hiring an additional police officer – to focus on the city’s growing population of unhoused.
Iwai warned the council that the homeless situation continues to impact downtown Ontario where business owners complain about problems created by transients.
Iwai said his officers spend more time responding to calls regarding the homeless than in the past and the majority of those contacts involve transients who struggle with substance abuse or mental health challenges.
Iwai also recommended a regional plan to focus resources, time and money on the situation with the unhoused.
Hill said Iwai’s presentation made an impression.
“I took it and ran with it,” he said.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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