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Columbia County's hidden homeless problem

There's no skid row, but county residents struggle with housing insecurity, too


Columbia County contributes to only .01 percent of the statewide homeless population. There aren’t many cardboard signs soliciting donations along Highway 30. But homelessness, and housing insecurity, is still a very real issue for the region — even if it remains largely unseen.

“We don’t have ‘big city’ homelessness,” said St. Helens Police Lt. Terry Moss, “like when you think about panhandling, drug addiction, alcoholism — those sorts of issues. If you drove through town, you wouldn’t see we had those kinds of homeless.”

Yet Martha Olmstead, who serves in the housing resources division of the Community Action Team, reports the Columbia County division of her organization serves 70 to 80 families a week seeking rental or energy assistance.

And while Moss said his department does receive complaints from homeowners who have seen evidence of squatting in vacant rental properties, he estimates that on a monthly basis, his department might field one call about “theft of services,” which can include cutting locks off water meters or plugging extension cords into neighboring homes to access electricity.

“I’m not sure if that’s a homeless issue, an economy issue, or both,” Moss said.

More commonly, he said, the homeless visit the police department looking for help.

“They need the resources,” Moss said, “and we don’t really have them.”

Homelessness by the numbers

The most recent data on local homeless populations is provided by Oregon Housing and Community Services’ 2011 One Night Homelessness Count, which provides statistics both statewide and by county. A complete count of homeless populations — including both “sheltered and unsheltered homeless” — will in the future occur only in odd-numbered years, with OHCS publishing the next comprehensive homeless census after Jan. 2013, said OHCS research analyst Natasha Detweiler.

The counts are generally performed in January, which is an especially difficult time for data-gathering in Columbia County where, with a lack of shelters, many of the county’s homeless seek alternative resources in Portland or at Community House on Broadway in Longview, Wash.

The 2011 study reported a statewide homeless population of 22,116, with 285 homeless individuals based in Columbia County. Of those, 58 percent were women and 39 percent were under the age of 17.

According to OHCS data, homelessness in Columbia County has increased by 78 percent between 2008 and 2011.

The 2011 count assessed the most commonly reported contributors to homelessness within Columbia County. Single homeless adults reported that unemployment, unaffordable rent and “being kicked out by family or friends” were the top three reasons. The top contributing factors to homeless families in Columbia County were unaffordable rent, unemployment and eviction.

Kids at risk

A more recent, and perhaps more accurate, indicator of homelessness in Columbia County is the Oregon Department of Education’s yearly, county-specific survey of homeless students, most recently released on Nov. 15.

The Homeless District Count is conducted in accordance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, a federal law ratified in part to guarantee homeless youths’ equal access to public education. The law requires each school district to employ a homeless liaison — an advocate who tracks homeless student enrollment and seeks to provide as consistent an educational experience for homeless students as possible. This can include advocating for a student to remain at the same school, even if his or her family moves to a different district.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistant Act, a child is considered “homeless” if he or she lacks “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This can include a child living with family in transitory housing, residences like emergency shelters or motels, tents or trailers. Children abandoned by their parents, or residing with friends and non-guardians, can also be considered homeless youth.

According to the most recent Homeless District Count report, there are a total of 21,382 homeless children in Oregon, with 202 of them in Columbia County.

Of Columbia County’s young homeless, the ODE found that 104 homeless youth are located in Scappoose.

Scappoose School District’s homeless liaison Brenda Pier takes issue with these figures. She is concerned Scappoose’s numbers were inflated by misinformation.

“Someone from the state had told us foster kids were [counted as] homeless, and actually they’re not,” Pier said.

Additionally, Pier said a student is included in the year’s homelessness count even if the child is without a permanent home for a brief period during the year.

According to the ODE’s countywide count, there were 35 homeless students in the St. Helens School District, 25 in Rainier, 21 in Vernonia and 17 in Clatskanie.

New trends in poverty

Olmstead has noticed a change in the demographic that CAT serves. There is more need, she said, from “the typical person that was middle class, that was working, that had an income, then lost their job, lost their home, and now they’re moving in with their families.”

“They’re people we don’t normally see,” Olmstead said.

One Scappoose resident who asked to be identified only as Josh has technically been homeless for a number of years, despite working over 50 hours a week at the Scappoose airport, earning well over minimum wage. Even with a part-time weekend job, he found himself unable to afford permanent housing. Still, he was ineligible for most public assistance programs, which deemed his income too high.

Like many who find themselves in difficult living situations, there were other complicating factors in Josh’s life: Much of the 34-year-old’s income goes to child support.

Josh has spent the last couple years staying with friends, most recently living in a small travel trailer in front of a friend’s parents’ house in Deer Island. There he had electricity but no running water, he said. He had to depend on camping facilities, public restrooms and the hospitality of friends in order to shower regularly and do laundry.

“It was my situation that I put myself in,” he said. “I just didn’t think there was anything out there because I had reached out for assistance before and was told I made too much money.”

Through CAT, Josh found a grant offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He discovered he was eligible to receive housing assistance and is now set up in his own apartment.

“I’m able to have a nice warm, dry place now,” Josh said.

“I think a lot of veterans don’t know the services are out there,” he adds. “I had no idea until I went to CAT.”

The big picture

Nearby Portland is known to have a fairly elaborate network of rescue missions and homeless shelters. Neighboring Longview offers its share of resources for the housing-insecure. But in Columbia County, CAT serves as a central resource center. And according to Olmstead, a 60 percent cut to the organization’s budget has diminished the traditional aid CAT has offered to the community, including emergency assistance to households that are dangerously close to eviction.

While CAT’s budget has shrunk, high unemployment rates have persisted, with sudden job loss forcing many families to unexpectedly live beyond their means.

Available funding still goes to families eligible for energy assistance, or to situations “where $150 is going to prevent them from having an eviction,” Olmstead said. But increasingly, CAT finds itself helping desperate families and individuals “implement the survivor plan.”

This would once have included helping at-risk individuals or families into transitional housing, but such a contingency plan is no longer realistic in Columbia County, where the waiting list to get into such facilities is anywhere from two to three years long.

“We don’t even put people on the waiting list anymore,” Olmstead said.

The organization now strives in large part to help families avoid an eviction, which could harm future rental prospects.

To find out more about the Community Action Team serving Columbia County, visit cat-team.org