Clackamas County stretches from the outskirts of urban Portland to the wilderness of the Mt. Hood National Park. The county filled with suburban centers, small rural towns and rugged mountain terrain is finding itself at a crossroads in the Bush administration’s dream of ending homelessness in 10 years. On June 7, the county will formerly release its point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. It’s not pretty.
An estimated 8,272 individuals were experiencing homelessness in Clackamas County at the end of January, according to documents released to Street Roots. This includes 3,543 people actually counted, plus 4,729 additional homeless persons estimated using statistical modeling based on a formula for counting bird populations. The count estimates that 2,531 children in 1,082 families are homeless in Clackamas County.
“It’s shocking for many people to see so many people living without a home, especially those who see the issue of homelessness as an urban problem,” says Brenda Durbin, interim director with the Clackamas County Department of Social Services.
“No one recognizes the boundaries between Clackamas and Multnomah counties,” says Durbin. “It’s crucial we are working together to address poverty at a regional level.”
The 2007 figures indicate an increase over the previous count in 2005. That year, nearly 2,500 people were counted, and nearly 7,600 people were believed homeless across the county
“Homelessness in the suburbs is about families,” says Martha McLennan, Executive Director of Northwest Housing Alternatives. “Single adults have a tendency to go to the city for services, but families tend to go to the suburbs where they can sleep in their cars, or camp out and feel safe.”
There is only one family shelter in all of Clackamas County. And it can only shelter up to five families at a time. “It’s all about affordable housing,” says McLennan. “Most of the development is high-end and people don’t have a place to go.”
In particular, it’s about rural housing, which has been essentiallly siphoned down to a trickle by the federal government, and the needs of rural communities feeling the impact of a homeless population. That’s according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington D.C.
“We need to significantly increase investment in all housing programs,” Duffield says. “Particularly the rural housing programs. It can address infrastructure issues like the lack of public transportation that makes it so difficult for families in rural and suburban areas to participate in programs and obtain and maintain employment.
“The federal government must recognize that homelessness doesn't look the same everywhere,” says Duffield. “The ‘one size fits all’ approach of recent years, most evident in the chronic homelessness initiative and in HUD's limited definition of homelessness, simply does not reflect the reality of rural and suburban communities. Of course, the truth is that those policies don't reflect reality in urban areas, either, but they are even more at odds with local experiences in suburban and rural areas. Suburban and rural areas do not have the same service infrastructure as urban areas, but they do have an affordable housing crisis that is as bad as urban areas.”
A difference of philosophy
In terms of how the government tallies it’s homeless population, Clackamas County has broken from the pack. Most cities and counties have chosen to follow federal guidelines in conducting the point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. Federal guidelines by the Department of Housing and Urban Development now say homelessness is limited to people who are on the streets or who are staying in shelters.
Clackamas County and some federal programs refuse to use the new definition, choosing instead to follow the more encompassing definition it replaced. The old definition includes individuals or families doubled up with family or friends due to economic conditions, people living in motels and hotels, cars, trailers and campgrounds and children staying in housing not fit for habitation. “There’s a widespread belief that the HUD count is too narrow,” says Durbin.
Instead of getting locked down in a political battle of wills, Clackamas County simply extracts the information HUD requires from the larger count to comply with federal guidelines.
Durbin says the county made it a point to count people doubled up through extensive outreach at food banks, with public schools, and by having people stationed at Department of Human Services locations. At the crux of all these numbers is money. The counts are key in competing for the federal funds available to address the problem.
“The (homeless) plans have divided the advocacy community and providers throughout the state,” says Donna Bolt, homeless coordinator with Oregon’s Department of Education. “Some things have become very difficult. The will to help is there, there are just so may people in rural areas that are living with different circumstances. You have people living outside in a shed, or camping down by the river.”
In another break from program, Clackamas County chose to call its plan a 10-year plan to address homelessness, rather than end it as the federal government suggests. The program was adopted in November.
“The decision was made on the understanding of the macro-issues that effect the issues of homelessness concerning policy and economics,” says Durbin. “We didn’t feel we could say we could end homelessness in 10 years. We can address certain aspects of homelessness, but to actually end homelessness will take more resources that the county can offer.”
In addition to the adoption of the 10-year plan, Durbin says the county enacted an ordinance that gives people a lenient five-day camping notice (Portland’s is 24-hour), and let’s people store their personal belongings with the county for up to 30 days.
It doesn’t all add up
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, counting the number of homeless people in the United States is methodologically challenging and highly political — a dangerous combination with an interesting history. Since the 1980s, the estimated numbers of people on the streets nationwide have changed dramatically, from as low as 250,000 to as high as 3 million.
A one-day count in January found 2,010 people staying in shelters, on the street, in their cars or camping out in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, an 8 percent increase over previous counts. In Lane County, more than 1,200 individuals were counted in a one-night count with more than 6,000 individuals experiencing homelessness throughout the year. In 2006, more than 1,100 individuals were counted in Washington County.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness claims 16,221 people experienced homelessness in the Oregon in 2005 and 744, 313 nationwide. The numbers have been widely criticized by advocates across the country as far to low.
Sampling figures from seven of Oregon’s 36 counties, Street Roots tallied more than 20,000 people that had experienced homelessness just between the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness numbers also discount many of Oregon’s homeless kids and youth due to the rigid definitions of homelessness by HUD. Oregon’s Department of Education Homeless Coordinator, Donna Bolt, says more than 13,000 kids and youth experienced homelessness in Oregon in 2005-2006, and “everything we are seeing indicates those numbers are going to be higher this year.”
“We believe that education is a way out of poverty,” Bolt says. “The McKinney-Vento Act had a different set of definitions (for homelessness) and we are under a different part of the McKinney Act that’s not recognized by HUD. Our essential goal is to try to get kids in a position to not drop out and not let the failure of other systems help to keep kids down. If the 10-year plans were really being created to address the actual needs of specific communities, it would be great,” says Bolt.
Rural communities throughout Oregon and the rest of the country are being hit hard by federal cutbacks. In 1976 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with creating affordable housing in rural areas, created 30,175 units nationwide. By 2005 that number had dropped to 783. The Bush administration has proposed to zero out the program altogether.
“Nobody has picked up that money at the other end,” says Paul Boden with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an organization made up of grassroots organizations along the West Coast, including Sisters of the Road and Street Roots. “Rural communities are losing family housing. And then they’re losing homeless money because the federal government doesn’t want to serve families. They want to serve homeless adults.”
Reform on the hill
On February 6, Representatives Julia Carson (D-IN), Geoff Davis (R-KY), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rick Renzi (R-AZ) introduced legislation called the HEARTH Act to the house floor to consolidate the McKinney-Vento Act and Department of Housing and Urban Development three main competitive homeless programs into one. The programs include a Rural Housing Stability Assistance Program to more accurately meet the needs of rural areas; creating a new program authority to fund homeless prevention programs; and providing more flexibility to communities who are offering effective approaches.
The bill would also change the definition of homelessness to include individuals doubled up and living in poor living conditions. The bill currently has 61 sponsors, including many in the Housing Subcommittee.
The HEARTH Act has broad support among people working with homeless children and youth in public schools, including Catholic Charities USA, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Volunteers of America, Community Action Directors of Oregon in Salem, and hundreds of others.
According to Barbara Duffield, the bill would, “put communities back in their rightful position of determining how HUD homeless dollars are best spent to meet local needs.”
Clackamas County numbers:
- 3,543 homeless persons counted
- 1,310 children (37%)
- 2,333 adults (63%)
Top places people experiencing homeless slept in 2007:
- Doubled up/overcrowded conditions, 62%
- Outdoors – camps, streets, forest, 10%
- Emergency shelter, 9%
- In cars/trucks, 9%
Top things people say they need to get out of being homeless:
- Money to help pay rent, 52%
- Money to pay rent deposit, 40%
- Help getting a job, 38%
- Medical care, 29%dollars are best spent to meet local needs.”
From the June 1 edition of Street Roots. Written by Israel Bayer