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Panel: We must help Washington Countys homeless

Several plans are in the works, but only a couple are being implemented in the near future

TIGARD - Spending the night outside at this time of year is no picnic, as people affiliated with the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness for Washington County found out Jan. 5 and as 'real' homeless people experience every night.

To find solutions for issues related to homelessness, 'Out in the Cold - What's Next?' was the topic of a panel discussion held at Tigard United Methodist Church on Saturday morning.

Eric Cannon, chairman of the interfaith committee, and his wife were two of only nine people out of the 20 to 30 who started the night of Jan. 5 in the parking lot of the Cedar Hills United Church of Christ and stuck it out for the whole night despite the cold and rain.

'I was struggling to stay warm in my car,' Cannon said.

While most of the 75 or so people at Saturday's meeting had not personally experienced living on the streets, one of them who is currently homeless gave a sobering first-hand account.

A well-spoken man, dressed in a dirty and tattered coat, stood with his hat under his arm and talked about how he became homeless.

'I'm a high-tech hobo,' he said, explaining that he is an aircraft mechanic who travels around for different jobs and had left Arizona for a job in the Pacific Northwest that didn't pan out.

On Oct. 11, he got a job through Labor Ready on Main Street in Tigard and earned $50 for six hours work. He and his girlfriend bought food and a bottle of whiskey and parked their 23-foot Itasca motor home in the parking lot across the street from Labor Ready.

Not intending to drive anywhere, the man had several drinks before a police officer came and told him to move the motor home from the private lot. A few blocks away, the man was arrested for driving under the influence and incarcerated for 11 days, and the motor home was impounded.

'I had no prior record, and I should have been released on my own recognizance,' the man said. 'My girlfriend got our cat and computer from the motor home, and she camped in the trees by the Washington County Jail for four days. She couldn't find shelter, and she couldn't find food.'

Since then, the couple have been renting a small motor home for $10 a day, and while they are getting by, they hadn't been able to raise an additional $85 to get their motor home out of impoundment.

'People live so close to the line,' the man said. 'It's going to get ugly. It's going to get brutal. Everyone of you is getting close to the same thing.'

Listening to the man's saga were the panelists: Ryan Deckert, former legislator and president of the Oregon Business Association; Tom Brian, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners; Ed Dennis, a member of the Hillsboro City Council and the Oregon deputy superintendent of public instruction; Carl Hosticka, Metro councilor for District 3 that includes Tigard, Beaverton, Sherwood and King City; and David Edwards, Oregon state representative for District 30 (Hillsboro).

Russ Dondero, a college professor and an advocate for affordable housing who is a founding member of the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness, served as the panel's moderator.

One of the issues raised by the panelists was the Legislature's failure in its last session to pass HB 3551, which would have raised $60 million annually for programs to aid the homeless in Oregon.

'In Washington County, the face of homelessness is children and families,' Dondero said. 'The Portland metro area is one of 13 in the United States considered one of the areas in our country with a (homelessness) crisis in the suburbs…

'If you are homeless in Washington County, you have a one in 10 chance of getting into a shelter… We need 22,000 affordable-housing units in the county and are currently building 250 a year. We've got to raise it to the next level.'

Dondero, who serves on the board for the Washington County 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, added, 'We're hopeful by having this plan to bring attention to this issue. We need to work on different levels to make families self-sufficient - that's our goal.'

Hosticka said, 'Over the years, we've looked at affordable housing. It's time to stop talking and put the money on the table. We hope to establish a revolving loan fund for affordable housing to fund projects… Our hope is to get more than $10 million in the revolving loan fund.'

Dennis pointed out that dealing with homeless students is a critical issue for the state's school districts.

'Every single kid counts,' he said. 'We have to stand up and fight for kids in poverty.'

Edwards said that he is dedicated to reviving HB 3551 and lamented the 'lack of awareness among public officials' about homelessness.

Brian agreed, noting that most projects to end homelessness are being organized by the private sector.

'I don't think there's a very organized awareness campaign,' he said. 'We can do better about educating people.'

During a question-and-answer session, Linda Moholt, coordinator for the Tualatin School House Food Pantry, said that her organization serves 360 families per month and that the Housing and Supportive Services Network will be implementing a cold-weather plan soon.

'Obviously, it's just a Band-Aid approach to a severe problem, and we've invited cities to participate,' she said. 'I'm pretty excited - I think this plan can work.'

Brian added, 'We are going to have to work together to get the best bang for the buck.'

But there was one winner at Saturday's forum - people in the audience donated more than enough money to get the homeless man's motor home out of impoundment.

For more information on the issue of homelessness, people may contact the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness at www.ahomeoftheirown.com or at 503-357-3282.