ONTARIO – Sunlight sliced through the shadows in the room at Origins Faith Community just off from the homeless meal site, creating enough light to show tables packed with neatly stacked clothes.
People filtered into the meal site and then over to the open doorway of the side room where they were handed sleeping bags, clothes and a bag – dubbed a hygiene kit – and bottles of water.
Outside, a line of homeless stood patiently waiting to get a free meal as smoke from a taco stand drifted over their heads.
Origins Faith Community was a busy place Thursday, Jan. 26.
That’s because the homeless meal site was the epicenter of an ambitious plan to acquire an accurate count of local homeless.
The effort consisted of more than 25 volunteers from local agencies who fanned out across Malheur County to find as many unhoused individuals as they could.
The effort, spearheaded by Community in Action in Ontario, will be crucial to set the stage for state and federal funding to address homelessness.
Teams of volunteers canvassed specific areas where homeless gathered – such as by the Snake River and area parks – to gather accurate numbers. The polling effort stretched from Ontario to Harper.
At the same time, other sites in town – such as Origins Faith Community and Community in Action – offered hygiene kits, sleeping bags, water bottles, hand warmers and coats for the homeless as the count was conducted.
“We also provided a taco truck at Origins so someone could get a good, free meal,” said Priscilla Garcia, housing program manager for Community in Action, who led the survey.
Garcia said similar counts of homeless were conducted in the past but were hindered by events such as the Covid pandemic.
Once the count is complete and the final numbers tallied, they will be turned over to the state, said Garcia. The data will also be available for local agencies.
“The numbers will be a resource for more housing development and where there are lacking needs and to fill in the gaps,” said Garcia.
“We need to be putting our time and resources toward strategies that use data,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.
“Understanding how many do not have adequate housing in the community is an important part of solving the problem.”
Based on a previous homeless count there are about 300 unhoused in the county, but Garcia said that figure will probably climb after the new count.
“We know there are more out there,” said Garcia.
Garcia said the Ontario Police Department, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the health department, Valley Family Health Care, Lifeways, Project DOVE and local school districts all provided help with the count effort.
Tyler Woods, a certified recovery mentor for the health department, joined those who searched Ontario for homeless.
“We went around town in two teams – went to Community in Action, checked parks, checked gas stations, Walmart, McDonald’s and Farmer’s Tractor Supply,” said Woods.
Once team members met with a homeless individual they were asked to participate in a survey.
The survey, said Woods, included questions regarding an individual’s current living situation, addiction issues, ability to find and keep a job and mental health challenges.
Surveyors asked for the individual’s name or initials.
“If they were not comfortable answering questions, that was OK,” said Woods.
Woods said most of the individuals they encountered had already participated in the survey. However, he said his team did run across a man at Loves Travel Stop in Ontario.
“We asked basic questions. How old are you? Are you homeless? Are you sleeping in a makeshift shelter? A tent? An RV? Do you have electricity? Sewer?” said Woods.
Woods said his team handed over a “warming bag” to the man at Love’s Travel Stop.
“We gave him socks, gloves, hand warmers, a water bottle and a snack. We told him if he needed any more supplies, he could come down to the health department,” said Woods.
Woods said he was pleased he could be part of the count.
“I think it is a good thing,” said Woods.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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