City still has largest homeless student population

Homelessness has decreased by nearly 15 percent countywide since 2011, according to a recent biennial homeless count. But a competitive rental market and housing scarcity continue to undermine housing security in the metro area, and the Beaverton area — which for the purposes of the study encapsulates Aloha — has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest number of homeless students per capita in the state.

According to Annette Evans, homeless program coordinator and chairwoman of the Housing and Supportive Services Network for the Washington County Department of Housing Services, the decrease in homelessness is largely because of a countywide effort to provide “one stop”-style housing resources, as well as county agencies’ collaborative “rapid rehousing” efforts to quickly move homeless households into permanent housing arrangements.

“We really retooled the system back in late 2009 and early 2010 to create weekly opportunity where people can come into Community Action and other community resources at one location and receive housing information,” she explained, “whether (they are) facing eviction, or struggling to make ends meet.”

She identified Community Action as the lead agency in the effort, with such resources offered in one location every week in Hillsboro, and every other week in Beaverton.

“They continue to have a great turnout of families and individuals who use that process to triage that information,” she said.

Evans’ agency conducts its own count on a yearly basis, and reports a 13 percent decrease in homelessness since January 2012.

The survey

January’s Point-In-Time Homeless Count provided a snapshot of the federal homeless population on a state by state level. In Washington County, the collaboration between five county agencies — the Community Action Organization, Luke-Dorf, HomePlate Youth Services, the Veteran’s Administration and Hands On Greater Portland — involved 13 staff members and 27 community volunteers administering a street count survey in 10 separate locations.

In Oregon, this census categorizes “homeless” by the state definition, which includes the federal criteria — individuals living in a shelter or temporary housing, or at a primary nighttime residence not designed for regular sleeping accommodation or human habitation — and expands it to include individuals who share housing due to loss of housing, economic hardship, personal safety, or facing impending eviction from a private dwelling unit.”

Respondents were asked where they planned to stay that night, what circumstances caused them to leave their previous living arrangements and where in the county they usually stayed.

Information was also collected on individuals’ race and ethnicity and whether they had ever been in foster care. Respondents were asked to identify “secondary characteristics,” including whether they identified as veterans, whether they identified as farmworkers, whether they had been released from a correctional facility in the previous 90 days and whether they had experienced domestic violence. Respondents aged 18 and younger were asked if they were in school.

The count found there are currently 1,153 homeless individuals based in Washington County. Of those, 15 percent were classified as “chronically homeless,” meaning they have been continuously homeless for one year or more, or have had four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

The latest Point in Time Homeless Count indicates nearly 30 percent of all homeless households are based in Beaverton.

Resources in crisis

In 2008, Washington County saw a dramatic increase in homelessness throughout the county — as well as a 282 percent increase in foreclosure notices of default.

In response, the cities of Beaverton, Hillsboro and Tigard, as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, presented A Road Home: The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Washington County to the Washington County Board of Commissioners.

The proposal was the result of community input and the contributions of local homelessness prevention and emergency service agencies, mental health and counseling resource centers, economic and employment advocacy groups and housing assistance programs.

Five years in, the initiative can boast significant gains throughout the county. But not all the data is positive — the number of homeless households has increased by more than 11 percent since the last count, for a total of 221 homeless individuals and families residing in Beaverton. The nearby cities of Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood all reported decreases.

Still, the initiative has already slowed the local eviction rate: In 2008, 4,222 eviction court cases were filed, versus 3,235 last year.

This is due in large part to local nonprofits, like Community Action and Care to Share, which provide one-month rental and utility assistance to households falling short.

Evans sees this as universally beneficial: Families are kept off the street, landlords retain good tenants whose hardships are often “episodic,” both parties are spared the cost of a court case and less public funding is spent on housing consumers in temporary shelters.

Even when families are compelled to move into cheaper accommodations, the initiative seeks to help them avoid the black mark of an eviction, which can severely limit their future housing prospects.

“Getting them into stable housing quickly is both cost-effective and often very effective in helping them become self-sufficient on their own, so they don’t need our resources in the long-term,” Evans said. “It’s much more cost-effective, if we can divert them from even coming into a shelter and get them rehoused, or staying where they are in a rental unit — that also is in the best interest because there’s crisis when families have to go into any shelter program.”

“We’re looking to stabilize children,” she added.

Housing crunch

More than 72 percent of the homeless population in Washington County identified unemployment and an inability to afford rent as primary contributors to their homelessness, pointing to rising rents and a housing scarcity that persists even as the county’s job market and economic forecast improves.

Beaverton’s housing rental vacancy rate is 3.32 percent, close to the county’s average. This is due partly because of the rash of home foreclosures that have occurred for the better part of the last decade: Former homeowners have in a sense been displaced into the rental market, increasing demand. As a result, landlords have less incentive to lease units to renters who have less-than-stellar credit histories or whose housing is subsidized.

“When we’re trying to place a homeless family out of shelters, they have a difficult time overcoming the barriers because they’re competing with so many other people,” Evans said.

With a more competitive market, rental rates have also increased to the tune of 6 percent statewide. With a minimum wage of $8.95, this effectively prices out many single-earner households at a time when workers must earn on average $18.25 hourly in order to afford a two-bedroom rental.

In light of the recent count, local agencies remain optimistic.

“People say, ‘You’re never going to end homelessness,’” Evans said. “Our goal is to have a system and resources available, so when someone becomes homeless, they can hit that springboard system to move on, so they’re not becoming chronically homeless and struggling. The longer you’re in crisis, the harder it is to get back into housing and employment.”

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