Homelessness, it seems, is a societal problem for which there is no perfect answer. Much like crime, drug addiction, unemployment and other issues that most communities face, homelessness will likely never go away completely.
But what any community would like to see is the number of homeless individuals diminish over time, not increase as they have in the past two years, according to a recent regionwide count. According to aggregate data from Central Oregon communities during the Point in Time Count held on Jan. 25, the region has seen an alarming 31 percent rise in unsheltered homelessness. Data has not yet been released on individual counties.
Organizers of the count pointed to several possibilities for the increase. Unemployment rate was once again identified as a problem. Even though the amount of local jobs has increased and unemployment statewide has reached a record low, Crook County still claims one of the highest rates in the state.
The other problem, one that has certainly received a lot of attention in the past year, is the region's lack of affordable housing. Many of the people who identified themselves as homeless cited inability to pay rent as a primary reason for their lack of a stable residence. Not only is rent vacancy woefully low in Crook County, those lucky enough to find an opening will face rent prices that have become unaffordable for many people.
Local officials have publicly stated that job creation and attacking the affordable housing crisis are top priorities and progress has certainly been made on both fronts. The county job market continues to diversify with more tech sector jobs from the data centers as well as the construction jobs associated with building the massive facilities. Local leaders have made an effort to make the community "business friendly" as well, which they hope will make companies more willing to choose Prineville over another area.
Housing issues should also stabilize at some point in the near future as city officials have made changes to land-use code that allows temporary and permanent RV parks — as well as other inexpensive housing options such as a dormitory-style complex — in the downtown area.
But even with these changes, continually battling homelessness will take an ongoing willingness to think outside the box and take a leap of faith in favor of creative solutions. Might the city and county benefit in the long run if they partner with social service organizations or the faith-based community to build a larger shelter to help people transition to a more stable housing situation? Would a greater investment in mental health services or workforce improvement organizations help people transition to a home of their own?
Yes, homelessness is probably incurable, and that is a hard realization. But seeing the problem worsen is demoralizing. Let's find a way to reverse that trend.