Malheur County residents participating in a survey by the Malheur Enterprise in February 2021 picked the three issues of most concern to them. (Enterprise graphic)

VALE - Malheur County residents see affordable housing, substance abuse and family poverty as key concerns – and they’re willing to help address them, according to a survey conducted by the Malheur Enterprise.

Nearly 300 people responded to the survey, designed to gauge the issues of most concern to local people. The results are part of a new effort by the Enterprise to help the community find solutions to the central challenges.

Those taking the survey were asked to pick their top three concerns.

“Decent local housing” was the top response, and survey takers added their own comments to underscore the issue.

“Lack of housing of all types,” wrote one.

“Low-income housing and senior solutions,” wrote another.

Poverty in the community drew comment after comment. Malheur County currently posts one of the highest poverty rates in Oregon.

One respondent identified as the top concern “poverty, better paying jobs to help support families and communities.”

Another wrote, “Since Malheur County has the highest poverty rate in the state of Oregon, I would think it would be to provide employment opportunities that increase the educational and skill level of individuals.”

“If we can get families out of the poverty cycle, we might see a decrease in the number of abused and neglected children,” another commenter wrote. “There are not enough resources to support families, foster families, and foster children and many of the providers we have are not equipped to help families and children process trauma.”

Drug abuse was another top concern.

“Excessive use of drugs that compromises people’s judgment,” “the violence and drugs are out of control,” and “drugs, alcohol, mental illness” were included in the remarks.

Others identified needs in the community that weren’t on the survey list.

“Honest – OPEN – government from the county court to the dog catcher!” wrote one.

Another cited as an issue, “Media lying. Media focusing on negativity.”

One respondent urged a more optimistic view of the community.

“We need to adopt a hopeful attitude. Every community faces challenges but Ontario (in particular) seems to embrace the despair and hopelessness as if it's a problem that cannot be solved, that it is reality. How do we get people to believe they can make a positive difference?” wrote one commenter.

Asked who they count on to lead the way for solving problems in Malheur County, survey takers chose local government (25%), elected officials (17%), nonprofit groups (16%), business leaders (15%), county government (9%) and state government (5%).

Those taking the survey tended to be active in the community – and ready to do more.

The results showed that 65% of those taking the survey volunteered on a local project in the past year and 78% were interested in joining others to work on a single community issue.

Respondents also said that stories by the Enterprise about solutions for community issues would be “very helpful” (68%) or “somewhat helpful” (28%).

The survey developed after a group of community leaders convened by Enterprise Publisher Les Zaitz convened to discuss new approaches to tackling key community issues.

“I am encouraged that a large group responded, listed/ranked their concerns, and agreed to participate to address these issues,” said Mike Blackaby, an Ontario insurance agent and former member of the Ontario School Board. “If we each do part of the work, we will find success.”

Nyssa Police Chief Ray Rau also was encouraged by the results.

“Sustainable jobs, housing and safety/livability factors are a major concern to those who live in rural eastern Oregon, far away from the lawmakers in Salem,” Rau said. “It is important to have mechanisms in place for follow through otherwise you just have a lot of ideas and nothing really changes. That’s where community involvement plays such a vital role in sustainable change to improve these areas.”

Zaitz said the project flowed from the newspaper’s involvement in a national pilot program the past year with the Solutions Journalism Network.

He said the Enterprise would soon host community gatherings to dig deeper into the issues cited in the survey, finding one to focus on in the next year. He said the Enterprise would devote resources to reporting on how other communities have successfully solved such issues, funded through a Community Solutions Fund that will be announced soon.

“The most heartening result from the survey is the number of people raising their hand to say they want to help,” Zaitz said. “That includes a good number of people who apparently haven’t been volunteering up to now. This is how community issues get resolved – when people in the community come together with purpose, focus and ambition.”

WANT TO PARTICIPATE? Send an email to Publisher Les Zaitz ([email protected]) to get on the list to receive updates and schedules for community gatherings.

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