Heather Echeveste, Housing Programs Manager for Community in Action in Ontario, talks about the homeless situation during a town hall meeting in February. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess).

ONTARIO – An ambitious, collaborative effort to create more housing – especially for the homeless - in Malheur County began with a conversation more than a year ago.

The Malheur County United Housing Collaborative consists of 11 agencies cooperating to tackle a range of local quality of life issues including affordable housing and physical, emotional and mental health challenges.

The coalition can trace its roots to a conversation between Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action, a local non-profit, and Liz Johnsen and Tim Hoekstra at Lifeways Behavioral Health in Ontario more than a year ago.

Higinbotham decided to seek input on the housing issue from Johnsen, who is director of business excellence for Lifeways and Hoekstra, the chief operating officer at Lifeways.

 “My need at the time was to ensure community buy-in and collaboration for housing that is safe, affordable and attainable,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham said after she met with Johnsen and Hoekstra all three realized the housing and mental health challenges the county faced were more complex than they first thought. 

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 “We needed a larger group to organize and prioritize the needs,” said Higinbotham.

Johnsen, with Hoekstra’s support, and help from Higinbotham, volunteered to organize the collaborative.

“She has played this role ever since. The group went through the forming stages, has a mission and vision and is moving forward with multiple projects to address the housing crisis in Malheur County,” said Higinbotham.

The collaborative consists of the Northwest Housing Alternatives, the Housing Authority of Malheur County, Community in Action, the city of Ontario, Northwest Real Estate Capital Corp, Lifeways, Euvalcree, and the Trinity Health Care System which includes Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario. 

Each organization will furnish specific services organized under the housing collaborative banner. 

“We meet every other month as a formal group and as needed when we are working on details of projects,” said Higinbotham. 

The group will also provide an umbrella of services and care for the homeless, those struggling with substance abuse, veterans and families and youth who are displaced or struggle to find permanent housing. 

During a meeting last month that Higinbotham said attracted more than 30 community members, the collaborative signed a memorandum to unravel the county’s housing problem.

The group already outlined six key projects that would create more than 200 new housing units in the county. The units run the gamut from tiny homes to single family structures.

“Some objectives are a work in progress and will be developed over time,” said Higinbotham.

Ken Hart, president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario, said the hospital’s role in the collaboration will be centered on being “more proactive in the community.”

“Our approach would be to partner with others. If there is a funding gap, Trinity might come in and give a low-interest loan to help with the gap. We are starting to look at the social influences of health and housing is the No. 1 issue we are seeing,” said Hart.

The main funding stream for the housing projects would be state and federal grants, said Higinbotham.

Some coalition partners – such as the city of Ontario – won’t seek grants but will support the effort in other ways.

“We will convene, facilitate, provide support letters, whatever it takes,” said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager.

Brown said he is encouraged by the work of the collaborative.

“This is the broadest representation that can make things happen. I truly believe if there is going to be a difference, this group has the potential to do it,” said Brown.

 Higinbotham said the coalition is a way to pinpoint the right resources to specific community challenges. “It’s to get people thinking about Malheur County’s housing needs in a focused way so we are not spinning our wheels,” said Higinbotham.

Have a news tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected] 

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