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A cause of his own

For Forest Grove's Eric Canon, whose 'real issue' is global warming, changing the way Washington County approaches homelessness has become a passionate personal quest
by: Nancy Townsley, 
Forest Grove resident Eric Canon relaxes on the front porch of his Elm Street home. The businessman and activist has organized a Town Hall on Affordable Housing May 12.

Eric Canon is feeling encouraged.

Nearly everyone who stepped up to the podium inside the Oregon City High School cafeteria April 4 to testify in front of the state Legislature's Joint Ways and Means Committee was upbeat.

They pleaded a variety of cases, asking the politicians for money for everything from higher education to business tax incentives.

'After whatever issue was presented, people were clapping,' Canon said, flashing a wide grin.

In his mind, the happy fervor boiled down to a fresh sense of permission.

'Services in this state have been cut back so severely that people are asking for things now,' said the longtime Forest Grove resident. 'There were 300 people at that meeting - they were spilling into the hallways.'

When it was Canon's turn at the microphone, he spoke succinctly and passionately about what has become his lightning rod issue: homelessness.

'My opening remarks were, 'of, by and for the people,'' Canon said last week, sipping tea on the front porch of his home on Elm Street. 'I wanted to make sure they understood that we weren't cynical.'

For Canon, 61, things have come nearly full circle since last May, when about 100 people gathered at Pacific University to discuss the issue of homelessness. It was there that the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness - a group of about a dozen folks committed to finding better answers for the chronically homeless - was born.

In short order, surrounded by a number of local activists with a similar passion, Canon agreed to be the group's chairman. He helped to organize a 'Bridge the Gap' financial campaign, which challenged area faith communities to raise money for ongoing operations at Washington County family shelters.

At two meetings last fall and winter, the committee presented the county Board of Commissioners with a pair of checks totaling nearly $20,000, meant to help pay $90,000 worth of bills at area shelters.

A shift in focus

Once the funding campaign wound down, committee members met for a visioning session and quickly turned their attention toward a more permanent solution to homelessness: expanding the network of churches that wished to function as advocates for the homeless and funneling those folks into affordable housing.

'This is one key to the puzzle of solutions for homelessness,' Canon said.

Canon defines 'affordable' housing as apartments and duplexes whose rental rates are 'slightly below market when the market's good.' A two-bedroom apartment that might retail elsewhere at $750 a month, for instance, could be made available to a qualifying renter for as little as $600 to $625.

Members have traveled to Salem in recent months to testify in favor of Senate Bill 38, which would create a $100 million trust fund for affordable housing in Oregon by requiring citizens to pay a $15 document recording fee for transactions at the county level. A portion of the funds would also come from Oregon Lottery proceeds.

The bill is 'close to passing' in the Senate, Canon said, and will go to the House after that.

'This is cost-effective medicine that will break the back of poverty,' Canon declared.

Two weeks ago, the group's board toured three affordable housing sites in Tigard and Hillsboro and 'came away amazed at what is being done,' Canon said. 'It's not just housing. It's also services that change peoples' lives' - such as computer programs, athletic opportunities and art projects for children and job counseling for parents.

'These are things that will help these people transition out of the hopeless cycle,' Canon said.

Another town hall

On May 12 at 9:30 a.m., the committee will host a Town Hall on Affordable Housing at the Cedar Hills United Church of Christ, 11695 S.W. Park Way, Portland.

Canon bills that meeting as an 'information-packed and moving account of what affordable housing really is.'

Experts on the subject, including Ramsay Weit, director of the county's Community Housing Fund, will make presentations at the morning session. Attendees also can expect to be brought up to speed on ways they can support efforts by the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness to get people into a home of their own, Canon said.

His Web site, www.ahomeoftheirown.com, details multiple facets of his efforts and those of the now nearly year-old committee.

Canon doesn't pretend that homelessness can be eradicated. But he insists that more - much more - can be done to ensure that fewer people spend multiple nights without a roof over their heads.

'Senate Bill 38 will change the way our state responds to homelessness and housing insecurity,' said Canon, who isn't shy about repeating his mantra that out of every 100 people who approach a shelter in Washington County, 88 are turned away for lack of space.

The average age of a homeless person in the county, he has said many times, is 12.

'There's a new wind blowing in Salem,' Canon said last week, 'It's a happy coincidence, but it's true. The last time affordable housing was on the front burner in Oregon was in 1991.'

That year, he noted, his colleague on the homelessness committee board, Forest Grove resident Russ Dondero, was pounding the podium in Salem.

'Russ knows my issue is global warming, but he told me about KISS - Keep It Simple, Sweetie,' Canon said with a laugh. 'That's what I'm trying to do. Humanity is so clever - when we put our minds to something, we can make a difference.

'I'm a homelessness guy, not a global warming guy.'