County joins together to offer help

How do we prevail over the devastation of homelessness? In Washington County, we do it with community.

Washington County has become renowned for its response to homelessness.

Our reputation revolves around the reality that local non-profits, governments, churches, citizens and businesses all work as a community addressing the needs of people who have no place of their own.

For instance, three years ago, when county commissioners adopted a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, the waiting list for entry into one of our four county family shelters had over 100 families.

Recently, and in the face of the worst economy since the Great Depression, the waiting list has been reduced to the teens or twenties. This is remarkable.

The latest figures released by Annette Evans, Homeless Program Coordinator of Washington County, show that homelessness here has actually gone down this year. The annual census, conducted in the last week of January, found 1,356 in homeless individuals in 2011, down from 1,383 in 2010.

Services are improved as staffing has not expanded. This is because calls for help are now routed to 211, the help line for non-emergency inquiries. This frees up staff time, allowing more productive work while 211 takes the calls and people are directed to appropriate services.

During cold winters shelter space has doubled as churches open under the Severe Weather Plan. They take families and single adults and unaccompanied teens. Three years ago there were no shelters for singles or couples without children. Sonrise Church, working with 10 other Hillsboro churches, opened the SOS Shelter and it stays open for three months during the winter.

Other churches open when the temperature falls below freezing. Lives have been saved. People who feel they have been abandoned discover volunteers within these shelters who care about their plight. This caring changes lives and begins to bring the lost and desperate back into society.

This was all envisioned in the Ten Year Plan: the community responding to the needs - the cries - of those who have no home, not enough food, who are sick and unable to pay for the care they need.

Please do not misunderstand me. Churches are not the final answer to homelessness. They are more like a band-aid than a cure. And there are still huge gaps in services provided.

But some of the service currently provided is service that was non-existent before. It amounts to many steps in the right direction.

And we desperately need this movement. No one should be homeless. The Forest Grove School District counted 150 kids who were homeless. In Beaverton , there were 1,580. With numbers like those we know there is much work still to be done.

Complacency doesn't cut it. But Washington County has shown remarkable progress.

One area that is seldom mentioned is the role business plays in support of shelters, food distribution outlets and accessible health care. There is much being done.

In the Severe Weather Shelter at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ, food contributions from Maggie's Buns and the Urban Decanter helped feed the hungry who stayed the night.

The local Ace Hardware provided tarps for some of the shelter guest to keep them dry during the rain. Cascade Microtech Inc, located in Beaverton, donated cash and new coats, hats and mittens to the Severe Weather Shelters this past winter.

Hospitals in Portland are finding it is cheaper to financially support recuperative care programs than to react to what happens when they don't. We need such a system here in Washington County.

How do we prevail over the devastation of homelessness? In Washington County we do it with community. This is my point. All of us are affected by this disgrace that is a nationwide phenomenon. We need to join together to respond. We are doing that here.

Kids need their own beds to sleep in. To succeed in school they need food and security and adequate health care. It is not happening to the degree it needs to right now. We, as a society, have turned our backs on 'the least of these.' But in Washington County we are breaking the mold, and others are noticing.

We are not there yet - not even close. But we are doing some wonderful things, working together, as community, to re-build what is broken down.

In light of this the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness is hosting a town hall to showcase the contributions business makes to those non-profits which serve people in need.

Please join us this Saturday, June 4 at Cedar Hills United Church of Christ in Beaverton, from 9 a.m. to noon, to celebrate our victories and chart new pathways of community.

- Eric Canon is chair of the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness and a member of the Homeless Plan Advisory Committee, a group of 17 citizens that meets quarterly to oversee the county's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.