Jackson County having better success than others in getting roofs over people’s heads
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
The ballroom at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites was full Saturday as Rogue Valley residents gathered to contend with the region’s thorniest problem at the Southern Oregon Homelessness Summit. Elected officials and agency representatives spoke throughout the afternoon, painting a picture of an enormous problem with tangible solutions emerging slowly through innovation and sustained effort.
The state has steadily allocated increasing funding to homelessness, said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.
“When I first got to the legislature in 2017, the statewide budget for homelessness was around $40 million. That’s a chunk, it’s not a big chunk,” she said.
When Gov. Tina Kotek issued an emergency declaration on homelessness in 2023, it came with nearly a $200 million allocation of funds for shelter creation and support, services, and housing production, she said.
Thanks to that funding, there are now 423 emergency shelter beds statewide, 9,000 households were prevented from becoming homeless, and 1,293 families or individuals were housed, Marsh said.
Millions more are being directed to the issue, but more importantly, Marsh said, the legislature is becoming more dynamic in its investments. When the state first began to direct funding to homelessness, it was with Project Turnkey — a $75 million initiative to turn unused hotels into socially distanced shelters in 2020, Marsh said. Now the state is directing funding increasingly beyond shelter creation and services to housing production.
The governor’s office has established a state-wide goal of building 36,000 housing units per year, a rate nearly double the current output, which Marsh said was “ambitious and appropriate.”
State funding has helped St. Vincent De Paul of Lane County open a factory to produce manufactured homes. The first home produced is earmarked as a gift to Jackson County, “because they know how much we need it,” she said.
Grants are being awarded for factories producing modular housing — two of these in Southern Oregon, one in Klamath Falls and one in Phoenix.
The construction speed possible through modular and factory-produced housing could be an avenue for the state to innovate its way out of the problem of homelessness, she said.
Statistics show those struggling with substance abuse, mental illness or poverty are more likely to become or remain stable if they are housed, Marsh said. But throughout Oregon, the variety of housing needed is not there.
“Even if we can stabilize people, help them get on top of their game, if there is not affordable units for them to move into, a stay in a shelter means you are back on the street when you have to leave that shelter,” she said.
Oregon used to have a variety of housing to meet a variety of populations, Marsh said. From the late 1800’s to the 1950s and ’60s, Oregon cities had boarding houses and hotel-like institutions for migrant workers and those struggling with poverty. But in the post-war rush of urban renewal, these old buildings were largely demolished with no equivalent form of housing rising in their place.
Until the 1980s, there were psychiatric institutions for the severely mentally ill. Those institutions were dismantled in a good faith effort to replace facilities known for inhumane treatment with residential-style housing for the mentally ill. But these alternative forms of housing were never completed.
“People who were moved out of psychiatric institutions found themselves, in many cases, with severe mental illness out on the streets with few resources and no ability to care for themselves,” Marsh said.
The recession of the early 2000s drove many developers into bankruptcy. Housing production stagnated while the state’s population continued to grow. The pandemic pushed low income households to the breaking point, and the Labor Day fires of 2020 destroyed thousands of homes.
“We saw in a moment what it is like to have 6,000 people out on the street without a place to live,” she said.
Barriers to construction of housing are many, and some are uncomfortable to acknowledge, said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. He candidly told the crowd how he came before Ashland City Council in the 1980s as part of a neighborhood group, “pleading with them” not to build a multi-family unit.
“I think it was 25 units on a 5-acre piece across the street. It didn’t get done. But that was NIMBY (not in my backyard). I didn’t want to see those people in my neighborhood. … You won’t be seeing me at another City Council meeting opposing multi-unit development,” he said.
The Oregon Legislature recently passed a law requiring cities throughout the state to allow multi-family construction. Some legislators struggled to support the measure as their constituents vocally opposed it, Golden said.
More broadly, the current structure of the national economy is silently driving up the cost of housing through widespread speculation on the housing market, Golden said.
“Any of us who have sort of general mutual funds, maybe in our retirement, in our IRAs, it’s quite likely you’re benefiting from this as well. … It’s an embedded part of our economy right now,” he said.
Sitting on a panel of local agency representatives, Housing Authority of Jackson County Executive Director Jason Elzy talked about the financial barriers in creating housing.
The average cost to build affordable housing in Jackson County is $350,000, meaning developers would have to charge $2,000 per month just to break even, he said. The agency can use grants and public subsidies to try to bring rental costs down, but the funding is competitive and does not cover the scope of the issue.
The Housing Authority offers vouchers, but the waitlist wavers between 2,000 and 3,000 people — on average, a two- to three-year wait, he said.
In sites from Shady Cove to Ashland, the agency acts as a landlord for 1,500 housing units. It also builds between 50 and 100 units per year, all designed to last 60 years, Elzy said. But beyond the cost of building, available land is scarce and expensive, there is a shortage of skilled laborers, and interest rates are high.
The Housing Authority is increasing its staff to make the most of resources coming out of Salem, Elzy said, adding he was proud to say that, in cooperation with other partners, the agency will open the door to 288 new units in the Rogue Valley this year.
The city of Ashland is driven to keep people safe in the face of rising homelessness, but it is largely limited to two limited levers in creating affordable housing, said Linda Reid, housing program specialist for the city.
“I call them carrots and sticks, because that’s what they are. Some are regulatory requirements that compel developers to provide affordable housing, and some are financial incentives that help offset costs of housing development,” Reid said.
Mary Ferrell quit her job with the Medford School District to found the Maslow Project after her work supporting homeless people and low-income families brought her face to face with the way homelessness can become heritage, she said.
Growing up she remembered a classmate who came to school with head lice, dirty clothes and no school supplies. She called him “Ryan.” Decades later, in her capacity working for the school district, she went to bring supplies to a home where children had come to school complaining of hunger, only to meet “Ryan” as he answered the door.
Homeless children who do not graduate high school are seven times more likely to experience homelessness as an adult. They are also twice as likely to go hungry, four times more likely to be sick and absent from school and seven times more likely to attempt suicide, Ferrell said.
“If we can stabilize families, if we can keep them together, we can keep them resourced, if we can support these children and keep them in school — that is in itself a solution to homelessness,” she said.
Homeless families often face a gap in resources because, “if you are not seen, you are not counted,” she said.
Homeless families are a largely invisible population because families usually eschew shelters and street camping for the sake of their children. They are living in a travel trailer or a car, inside a hotel room, and at the homes of friends or extended family members.
“It is usually overcrowded, it is usually substandard, and it’s very chaotic for children,” Ferrell said.
Homelessness creates its own issues for every individual who experiences it, said Jackson County Health Services Division Manager Stacy Brubaker. It can be difficult to bathe and stay clean, presenting potential health risks. Statistically, homeless people are more likely to be victims of violence than the rest of the population.
“Research shows the trauma of experiencing homelessness can cause people to develop mental health problems for the first time, and certainly can worsen any existing challenges somebody might have already had,” she said.
The longer someone is homeless, the more they are likely to avoid seeking or even accepting services, said Melanie Doshier, Support Services Director of ACCESS.
“Think about the number of times they may have tried to go and get services and were told they have to go to a wait list or didn’t have the right documentation. You can start to understand why people become service resistant,” she said.
Even the most resilient people likely wouldn’t apply for a job more than twice after being denied, she said. While ACCESS has a street outreach team working to offer services to homeless people five days a week, there is no magic number of how many times contact is made before trust is earned, she said.
Marsh said Jackson County has been recognized as exceptional at the state level for marked success in attacking the issue.
The Point-in-Time count — an annual federally-led count of homeless people — showed an increase of 12% in the number of homelessness people throughout the state from 2022 to 2023, said Bryan Guiney, Oregon Field Office Director for the Department Housing and Urban Development.
Only Jackson County saw a decrease, recording a decline of 8.6% in the homeless population.
“As your federal partners, we want to know more about the secret sauce of what’s going on in the Rogue Valley so we can take that to the rest of the state,” Guiney said.
In her closing remarks, Opportunities for Housing, Resources & Assistance Executive Director Cass Sinclair said empathy and curiosity were a “palpable pulse” in the ballroom Saturday afternoon. She and other event organizers were ready to count the event as a success and hope for another next year.
“This is just the beginning of a great conversation,” she said.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com.