As the political debate rages on over how best to address Roseburg’s homeless crisis, a few local nonprofit organizations have been quietly plugging along, doing what they could to build programs that pull homeless people off the streets and into their own apartments.
A majority of local homeless people queried during Roseburg’s 2019 point-in-time homeless count said what they most needed was help finding a place to live and paying for it.
Over the past few decades, the Housing Authority of Douglas County and the United Community Action Network have been Douglas County’s major players in the effort to supply permanent housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
HADCO operates 323 rental units around the county and administers 762 federally funded housing vouchers.
The vouchers are popular because they’re a form of rental assistance that’s mobile — not tied to any particular housing complex, HADCO Director Janeal Kohler said. For those able to get them, they will pay the rent at any apartment.
When Christy James-Beck and her family learned of her brother-in-law’s death this past February, they were distraught, she said.
There’s just one catch. There’s a waiting list, and the people on it wait a year to two years before they receive a voucher.
Kohler said the list is operated on a first-come, first-served basis. It doesn’t try to distinguish who’s more deserving — the family with children about to lose their home, the veteran, the disabled person or the person who’s already on the streets.
In an average year, Kohler said HADCO provides about $3 million in housing assistance to local families.
UCAN operates 93 housing units around the county. Shortly before his retirement last month, outgoing director Mike Fieldman said some focus on specific target groups, such as people previously incarcerated. Others are open to all. UCAN also operates a food bank and many other programs that benefit low income residents.
The man who introduced himself as Elliot Ness sat on a bench in front of Roseburg City Hall in a blue raincoat on a pleasant October day.
Like HADCO, the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers housing vouchers, but they’re exclusively given to veterans. A story on that program will appear later this week.
NeighborWorks operates Eagle Landing on the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus, which provides housing for homeless veterans. But for the most part, rather than focusing on the homeless, NeighborWorks targets low to middle income households. It offers 600 affordable rental units and helps people in financial crisis keep their homes.
That work likely plays a critical role in preventing an increase in the homeless population.
A homelessness study incorporated into the Housing Needs Analysis recently adopted by the city of Roseburg suggested a significant portion of Roseburg’s population is at risk, with 3,379 households paying more than 30% of their income on rent and more than half of those households having annual incomes below $20,000.
Housing First Umpqua co-founder Betsy Cunningham said people with higher incomes who lose their homes can pay for an alternative, such as staying in a motel. But those making very little are likely to wind up on the street unless someone steps in to help them.
There’s general agreement among the leaders of these organizations that some prevalent community attitudes toward the homeless, from judging them to ignoring them are not effective.
Kohler said it’s important to to look at what’s worked in other places and use the data from those successes to figure out the best approach for Douglas County.
“Ignoring the problem or making it difficult for the homeless I think has proven ineffective,” she said.
Kohler said she would like to see everyone working together to pool resources effectively, and that means city and county government need to be involved, she said.
“It’s a hard road, but what other choice do we have but to walk it? So we can easily say what has not worked. So what’s the harm in trying something new?” Kohler said.
Kohler said many county residents have false ideas about the homeless, for example that most are transients that someone shipped to us on a Greyhound bus.
“That’s just not true. If you look at the data that is out there, most of the individuals are born and raised in this area and they are community members right beside us,” she said.
Cunningham favors a housing first approach, under which a homeless person is given a roof and four walls, without preconditions like addiction treatment or employment. Housing first projects in Seattle, Utah and New York, where the approach was initiated by an organization called Pathways to Housing in 1992, have claimed success in using this model.
Cunningham said that approach allows a homeless person to become stable before trying to address his or her other problems.
“The housing first model isn’t saying we’ll get them housed and we’ll never even do anything about it. It is trying to stabilize them, get them to the point that they start being willing to accept help. It’s still always offering help, but it’s not imposing it on them,” she said.
Fieldman said traditionally housing first offers wraparound services with 24/7 support.
In the decade Philip Baca and his wife, Rebecca, have been unsheltered, they have filled out close to 80 apartment applications each, he said.
“The research had shown that to be extremely successful. I’ve been able to visit some of the early housing first models in the Seattle area, and it’s quite impressive the successes that they have had with that model. But it’s also a very expensive model to operate,” Fieldman said.
Duplicating such a program in Roseburg would be a big challenge, he said, because the costs would have to be spread across a smaller group of people.
“It’s harder to pull off in a rural area. But the need is just as strong, and the results I think would be just as successful. It would just be a little more costly to do it,” he said.
UCAN doesn’t have the resources to do what Seattle did. So its version of housing first is a more general concept, Fieldman said. The goal is still to get people into housing without first requiring something, such as sobriety, as a precondition. And it still means using case managers to get services to residents once they’re housed.
Fieldman believes the key to solving the homeless crisis is to stop judging the homeless and start doing what’s necessary to solve the problem. Nobody wants to be homeless, he said.
“If you ask them what do you want to be when you grow up, I don’t think you’re ever going to find a kid who’s going to say I want to grow up to be homeless,” he said. “It’s not something anybody ever strives to be.”