WARRENTON - On Friday, the intersection of Willow and Azalea Drives looked festive indeed. There was a tent, a crowd, and even a cake.

But this was no ordinary birthday event.

Instead, the birth of two buildings, the realization of an ambitious dream and the future homecoming of eight homeless families was celebrated.

Next to the white vinyl tent stood one of the two buildings that make up Tilikum, an eight-unit apartment complex housed in the not yet complete Forest Rim subdivision. Meaning "friend" in the Chinook language, Tilikum will soon provide the first permanent housing for homeless families in Clatsop County.

A $720,000 grant in November 2008 provided much of the $880,000 in funding the Clatsop County Housing Authority needed to purchase the eight two-bedroom units, made available when the Oregon Legislature approved the use of $16 million in lottery-backed bonds for projects like this in 2007.

Creating the Tilikum involved the work of dozens of individuals on committees and commissions in the county, as well as state and county agencies said Kathy Lucas, executive director of the Clatsop County Housing Authority. Many were on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and stayed to tour the two-bedroom apartments.

"Our vision is to break the cycle of homelessness," Lucas said to the crowd assembled under the tent. With more than 200 homeless students residing in the county, she said, there is clearly a need for such housing - where rent is 30 percent of a family's income. For some that means zero rent, said Sheila Heino, Clatsop County Housing Authority's finance coordinator.

"They might not pay anything if they have no income," Heino said. Northwest Oregon Housing Authority has dedicated section 8 vouchers to help offset rent costs to residents for 10 years, Lucas said, providing housing that is not temporary. The first families will move in over the next few weekends, she said.

"This is permanent housing, not transitional housing," Lucas said. Residents can take advantage of support services, too, that will help ease their shift into stability. Clatsop Community Action will provide case management for those needing such help, said George Sabol, the organization's executive director.

Sabol marveled at the accomplishment, as well as the speed with which the whole plan became reality.

"If we sat around one year ago, brainstorming, asking each other, 'What can we do to help?' Everyone would laugh and say this idea was impossible. But it's happened. Eight homeless families have housing," Sabol said. Last year's one-night homeless count revealed 259 homeless families in Clatsop County, he said, a number that doesn't tell the whole story.

"The positive side is it tells us we have a homeless problem. The negative is that it is just a snapshot," he said.

But Sabol refused to let the sobering numbers dampen his optimism about more housing like Tilikum.

"Hopefully this is only the beginning," he said.

Mike Pierce, chief executive officer of TLC Federal Credit Union, noted the economy's bleak outlook, but added that successes like these can give our community hope.

"These types of projects are vital to move forward. You folks are so far ahead of anyone else in the community, I just salute you," he said.

The Clatsop County Housing Authority next plans to purchase another 16 units in the Forest Rim subdivision to be used for workforce housing. Just around the corner from Tilikum, those 16 units would be available for working families whose income is 60 percent of the average median income or lower.

That project, called Wapiti, would offer similar two-bedroom units for move-in as soon as April 1. Rent would be from $533 to $660 per month, depending on income, Heino said. Funding came from a $600,000 HOME grant and a $100,000 trust fund grant from Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Low-income households in Clatsop County pay too much of their income on housing, according to a recent study conducted by Oregon Housing and Community Services, Lucas said. The study determined that 81 percent of those families were "rent-burdened," meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Workforce housing like Wapiti aims to right this imbalance, Lucas said.

Skip Hauke, Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the workforce housing helped him look to the bright side of our waning economy's health.

"We have to remember that 91 percent of the people are working. That's why we need more housing like this. When we bring jobs to the area, we need to bring more housing so people can afford to live here," Hauke said.

Victor Merced, director of Oregon Housing and Community Services, said the collaborative effort was commendable.

"This group has very strong leaders and a good commitment from government and local partners. It's unique in terms of the people involved," he said. The possibility for more funding to build projects of this kind exists, despite the state's budget woes, he said, but it still won't come close to filling the need.

Patricia Roberts, Clatsop County commissioner, said she was thrilled to see so many people contributing to bring a dream into reality. She's hoping others will be inspired to give their time and effort to other projects, even when they seem unattainable.

"If people really care, they need to get out and volunteer," Roberts said.


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