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Homeless advocates shift focus in New Year

Interfaith group plans to take a harder look at affordable housing in Washington County
by: Chase Allgood,

fter spending much of 2006 raising money to fill in budget gaps at area shelters, members of the Washington County Interfaith Committee on Homelessness have shifted their attention to a broader issue: affordable housing.

They plan to focus on that topic as the new year begins, group chairman Eric Canon said at a meeting Monday night.

'We are now transitioning from the Bridge the Gap campaign and helping to pass the (county) public safety levy to issues of affordable housing,' he told a group of 17 people at the Hillsboro First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Canon, a Forest Grove resident and a member of the outreach commission at the United Church of Christ there, has spent the last seven months spearheading an effort to involve the county's faith communities in the growing problem of homelessness.

Since last May, Canon's committee raised more than $16,000 toward a $90,000 budget hole faced by four area shelters - the Good Neighbor Center in Tigard, the Community Action Shelter in Hillsboro, the Family Bridge Shelter in Beaverton and Monika's House, a shelter for battered women.

In the process, members raised the social consciousness of area residents who 'thought homelessness was about the old man down on Burnside,' Russ Dondero said at Monday's meeting.

'Homelessness in Washington County is a family issue affecting moms, dads, brothers and sisters,' said Dondero, a retired Pacific University professor.

Now the group wants to lobby the County Board of Commissioners and the Oregon Legislature to put homelessness on their agendas as a money item in 2007.

'It's time for them to step up,' Canon said.

An estimated 1,200 people are homeless in the county, he added, and the shelters' 110 beds serve only 12 out of every 100 people who ask for help.

'They are the Mother Theresas, doing the yeoman's share of the work,' said Dondero.

It isn't enough, he insisted.

'There are 43,000 people in the county who are one major medical illness or one job loss away from being put out of their homes,' he said. 'Homelessness happens because people are faced with economic insecurity.

'The issue to me is not building more shelters - the issue is that we have to build more affordable housing.'

Passage of the $2.6 million county public safety levy allowed the committee 'the luxury of moving on to the larger issue of housing security,' Dondero said.

'The shelters will be held harmless for the next four years, but there aren't enough of them,' he said. 'We've got to find a way to help the 88 who didn't get into the shelter tonight.'

Republican state Sen. Bruce Starr, who represents Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove, encouraged committee members to 'build on the momentum you've created' and bring the issue of homelessness to the Oregon capitol.

'No one talked about homelessness in the governor's campaign, and it's not discussed in his new budget,' Starr said.

David Edwards, a newly-elected state representative from Hillsboro, said he hoped to be named Dec. 15 to the House Ways and Means Committee, where he would try to link with Starr and Rep. Chuck Riley, also of Hillboro, to 'get something concrete done' about homelessness.

Ramsay Weit, an attorney who administers the county's non-profit Community Housing Fund and acts as the interfaith committee's fiscal agent, said he wanted to 'develop capital sources to build more affordable housing in our communities.'

County commissioners in 2003 earmarked $300,000 for the fund, specifically for low-income housing. But the supply hasn't kept up with demand, Weit said. He challenged the county's churches, synagogues and mosques to raise another $100,000 for affordable housing and to rally their acquaintances to donate other resources - including land and buildings - to add to the county's inventory.

Susan Wilson, director of the county's Department of Housing Services, said 5,500 people were on a waiting list for affordable housing.

'We've got to get beyond the curve and do a better job with this problem,' she said.

GET INVOLVED

The Interfaith Committee on Homelessness plans to meet again at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18 at the Hillsboro United Church of Christ, 494 E. Main St. That's when members will begin hammering out an action plan for establishing a countywide coalition to work on housing issues.

MORE INFO ON THE WEB

Log on to www.ahomeof theirown.com to find out more about the history of the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness and its plans for the future.