Any doubt that Malhuer County has a crisis involving the homeless was dispelled last week. But the information and questions at the Town Hall on Homelessness also showed there is hope. Now, it’s up to all of us to pitch in to help.

Local experts pulled back the curtain for the community last week to tell about homelessness, as they appeared on a panel put together by the Malheur Enterprise.

Numbers tell one story. The number of those identified as homeless doubled in this year’s county over last year. About 36% of children in Malheur County live in impoverished households. Even Treasure Valley Community College reported there are homeless students, attending class by day, living in cars by night.

The experts were honest with the audience. They acknowledged there are some in the homeless population who chose that lifestyle. They acknowledged that social services aren’t available to all because of behavior and conduct that can’t be tolerated.

But the bigger share, they said, are people who are homeless by circumstance – a medical crisis that wiped out savings, the loss of a job and ability to pay the rent, and more. The experts told of successes – of families determined to dig their way out of homelessness. They just needed a helping hand.

What also emerged through the evening at Four Rivers Cultural Center is that a lot of people care deeply about this issue. There are those paid to care, but their compassion clearly goes beyond just doing their job. There are volunteers who help at various agencies, nonprofits and churches. And there was the couple that turned their large home into housing for needy adults, urging others to do the same.

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One challenge that often faces communities in crisis is one of coordination. Lots of organizations want to help people. Lots of people participate. But that energy and effort sometimes gets dissipated because one group doesn’t know what the other is doing. Or more than one group tries to take on the same task, fine in spirit but inefficient with time or money.

A solution to that is in front of us: the Malheur County Community Housing Task Force. Few have probably heard of the group. It’s informal in some ways, and has been working quietly. But despite its name, the group of local leaders has a broader mission perfectly suited to a focus on homelessness.

Goals include cooperation among those involved in providing housing and services and better understanding by groups about what others have to offer. The task force wants to “foster ownership and self-sufficiency among residents,” “address the needs of the whole person,” and “give residents a voice and forum for their needs to be heard.”

Those with a seat at the table include Northwest Housing Alternatives, the Housing Authority of Malheur County, Community in Action, the city of Ontario, Northwest Real Estate Capital Corp., Lifeways, Euvalcree, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center, Valley Family Health Care, the state Department of Human Services, the Malheur County Health Department and Malheur Education Service District.

That’s a powerful alliance – and one that should build and expand. The school system, from local schools to Treasure Valley Community College, need to be at the table. So do business organizations such as the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce and Revitalize Ontario. And the faith community and nonprofit groups serving other clients should be involved.

The group needs more attention. Every participating organization should be sure its own staff and supporters are aware of what’s going on. More public access would help – meetings should be open, information shared publicly. At the Enterprise, we’re raising our hands here to say we’ll help get out that information.

Missing from those in the discussion so far are those who need or are getting services. The panelists spoke eloquently about them and what is being done. But hearing directly from those who need help would provide a key view. What struggles have they had getting help? When were they told no and why? What stigma do they face and how can that be dialed down?

Homelessness is not solved by, as one social commenter put it, loading people up on a bus and shipping them to Portland. That’s heartless and ignorant. That suggests the homeless are just drifters, with no ties to Malheur County. That’s nonsense. Most of them once had a mailing address right here in the community.

Perhaps the task force, with help from the Enterprise, can host another Town Hall, this time designed to listen to individuals. We’re betting hearing those accounts would add urgency and sharpen the focus for how to help. We’re betting those accounts would open eyes and hearts in ways that no government expert could do.

Homelessness is born of complex factors, misunderstandings and missteps. A good start has been made to untangle and fix those factors. Doing so will benefit struggling individuals and families, schools and employers, and our community. Let’s get behind this movement, give it political and financial fuel, and pursue success that has eluded so many other places.

– LZ

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