ONTARIO – To solve a problem, the first step is to define it.
That’s one goal of the homeless count conducted in Malheur County last month where roughly 266 people were identified as unsheltered.
“We know we are going to miss some but we will continue to figure out the best ways to do outreach to our homeless community,” said Priscilla Garcia, housing program manager for Community in Action.
Garcia said 266 homeless people in Malheur County is still a “big number.”
“I think it is a good start. It provides information and it shows the need,” said Garcia.
The homeless count involved more than 25 volunteers from local agencies who fanned out across the county to find and tally unhoused individuals. The Ontario Police Department, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the Malheur County Health Department, Valley Family Health Care, Lifeways, Project DOVE, Origins Faith Community and local school districts helped with the count.
The data from the count, sponsored by Community in Action, will provide a baseline figure to seek state, private and federal funding to address the homeless issue.
The number of homeless in the county fluctuated in the past. In 2020, officials identified 377 unhoused individuals, up from 198 logged in 2019.
“Unfortunately, the reality is until we have more housing or affordable housing or shelters or any kind of temporary placement, this isn’t going to go away immediately,” said Garcia.
The homeless numbers help agencies like Community in Action or Origins Faith Community Outreach Initiative define the scale of the local unhoused problem.
“It helps us to know how many people are out on the street so that helps us purchase supplies like cold weather gear, hats, gloves, sleeping bags,” said Heather Echeveste, executive director of Origins Faith Community Outreach Initiative.
Echeveste said the tally of those in need is a snapshot of the homeless challenge on one day during the year.
“There are a lot more people that need services then the count shows typically,” said Echeveste.
Echeveste also said the count documents how acute the housing problem remains in Malheur County.
“It shows how much more affordable housing is needed and how much food is needed to make sure no one starves to death and how many people are going underserved,” said Echeveste.
Echeveste said creating more housing won’t totally resolve homelessness.
“It isn’t the answer but part of the issue for sure. If there were more affordable housing more people would live there,” said Echeveste.
To reduce the housing shortage, said Echeveste, the county would need “at least 100 more housing units then what are available right now,”
“Where does the money come from? Without the housing units where do we expect to put them? The number is still 266 and the housing is still scarce,” said Echeveste.
Even with more housing, those who are homeless face other obstacles to finding permanent shelter, said Echeveste. For one, costs of housing continue to climb, she said.
“Everyone would have to make $75,000 to $150,000 a year and have, at least, a credit score of 680 or above and a perfect background check or a great rental history. Even if everyone had a perfect background or credit score, there is no place for them to live,” said Echeveste.
Someone who has lived on the street for a year or more typically won’t have a great credit store or sufficient earnings, she said.
“Many people are not choosing to be homeless. Many times, there is literally nowhere else for them to live,” said Echeveste.
Ontario has added new housing during the past year and a half. A $16 million project transformed the former Presbyterian Community Care Center into 56 affordable rental units. The facility opened in July, 2022.
Meanwhile, a 70-unit townhouse complex in northeast Ontario also opened up during the past year.
There is also the existing tiny house project next to Origins Faith Community Outreach Initiative that is usually full. The tiny house project is only open during the winter months.
People are homeless for a variety reasons, said Garcia.
“They’ve lost housing because of a loss of income, or a shift in their household size or they were in treatment. There is a list of things that cause it. But that’s why we are here to advocate for them,” said Garcia.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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