In the community

New funding could keep Ontario’s tiny homes available year-round

Local officials propose to keep Ontario’s tiny homes shelter for homeless people open during summer.

They’ll present a plan for the year-round operation at the Tuesday, April 9, meeting of the Ontario City Council. It starts at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 444 S.W. 4th St.

According to Dan Cummings, Ontario city manager, the aim is to gather input from the community near the 16-unit temporary shelter, which sits next to Origins Faith Community Church at 312 N.W. 2nd St.

The tiny homes shelter, which currently operates from November to the end of April, could potentially be receiving funding from the state to operate year-round and local officials are negotiating to buy the land on which the temporary shelter sits, said Kristy Rodriguez, executive director of the Housing Authority of Malheur and Harney Counties. Community in Action, the entity overseeing the tiny house project, would receive the money through the housing authority, according to Rodriguez.

Cummings said that, under state law, the city must allow the facility to operate all year if there is funding to keep the temporary shelters open year-round.

Additionally, Cummings said that Community in Action must install air conditioning in the units to provide shelter from the scorching hot summer conditions.

Jody Warnock, executive director of Community in Action, said if the deal is not completed soon, the tiny homes would have to close at the end of April.

Rodriguez said the tiny homes, designated as temporary shelters for unhoused individuals, have been moved twice since they were established in 2020.  The lot next to the church is owned by Caldwell resident Stephanie Cook, who donated the use of the property for the tiny houses.

Warnock said her organization soon should have a verified tally for the homeless count in Malheur County conducted earlier this year. Warnock said she expects an increase over last year’s count of 266 people struggling with homelessness.

She said “not much has changed in six months” in local circumstances that lead people to be homeless. As in the rest of the state, the costs of housing continue to climb, and people are struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. Warnock said her organization also works with domestic violence survivors.

She said the agency works with other entities to find people housing. Additionally, she said Community in Action works with landlords to reach an agreement to help those who have fallen behind on rent.

A Portland State University study published late last year found that Malheur County has just seven beds available all year for those who are unhoused.

Warnock said arranging more year-round shelter is not going to resolve homelessness. Other “real-world issues” need to be addressed, such as the lack of affordable housing and resources to address mental illness and drug addiction, she said.

Some who struggle with homelessness, Warnock said, don’t want help. She said at Community in Action, her staff daily works with people suffering from addiction or mental illness who are not ready to get help.

“We have great providers here in the area,” she said, “and we have great partnerships with them, but you can’t make these folks participate. If they are not ready to deal with addiction or mental health issues, you can’t force them to do it.”

She said the county is dealing with more than just a housing crisis. Warnock said another important factor is that more people in shelters will require more staff. She said her organization faces challenges finding qualified staff. Year-round shelters will require Community in Action to find more qualified homeless advocates. She said she currently has roughly 30 full-time staff and will be recruiting for about five more within the next month.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article it was wrongly reported that there were 34 temporary shelters. There are 16. The Enterprise regrets the error.

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