Two years after its formation, a task force intended to confront homelessness in Astoria has found few concrete solutions.
The task force endorsed a Helping Hands reentry facility in Uniontown and advised police on a sweep of camps in the woods. But other ideas, including a fine forgiveness program, have been left sitting on the back burner for months, simmering in subcommittee discussions. Now a homeless services coordinator might be named to gather data and address gaps across Clatsop County.
While the task force has weighed different options and tried to build a more nuanced understanding of why people are homeless, homelessness has increased.
In 2017, there were an estimated 680 homeless people in Clatsop County — a count that included people living on the streets and those in shelter but still considered homeless by the state. By 2019, that number swelled to 894, with 22% considered chronically homeless. The figures are just a snapshot and most analysts believe they likely undercount the homeless population.
“I think there may be some unrealistic expectations on some people’s part because the word ‘solutions’ is there in its name that we’re going to solve homelessness,” said Mayor Bruce Jones, who took over leadership of the homelessness solutions task force from former Mayor Arline LaMear last year.
Since it was created, the task force has had to manage the community’s — and, in some cases, its own — expectations about what Astoria can do to reduce homelessness.
“I don’t see the city creating its own shelter or warming center or food facility,” Jones said. “What the city will focus on doing is continuing to bring all these agencies together.”
Jones and Police Chief Geoff Spalding point to better communication between the government officials, business leaders and health care and social service providers who gather for task force meetings.
“One of the greatest values of this committee are the relationships that have developed,” the police chief said. “That alone has been worth the price of admission, so to speak.”
In the next six months, Spalding hopes to present three recommendations from the task force to the City Council, a goal stated at the first meeting in 2017.
At the top of the list is a countywide homeless services coordinator, though many details of the job have yet to be finalized, including how the position would be funded. The other two items have not been decided, but could include ideas like the fine forgiveness program.
Homelessness — driven by rising housing costs, mental health challenges, drug and alcohol abuse and dozens of other factors — has become more visible on the North Coast and across the West. Solutions are difficult, even in communities with political will and deeper financial wells.
Sit in on any public meeting about homelessness and at some point an elected official will lean forward and say, “There is no silver bullet.”
In Astoria, though, some have criticized the task force for being too slow to make recommendations and for failing to pressure the city and the county to take more meaningful action on housing, seen as a root cause of homelessness.
Even as some who serve on the task force see a possible solution in the homeless services coordinator, they also believe housing remains a key piece of the puzzle.
When looking at the people Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare serves, Amy Baker, the executive director, said everyone seems to be struggling to find housing they can afford.
“As we scratch the surface and we look a little bit deeper, we find out that there are a lot of people living in this community who are on the edge of being homeless at any given time. And it’s really not ‘those people,’ it’s any of us,” Baker said at a task force meeting this month.
“It’s one crisis away. It’s one big health care bill. It’s one lost job. It’s one divorce. It’s any one of those things. And I think it’s critical for this group to talk about what is the housing that we have available.”
“This may have started out as a conversation about homeless folks,” she added, “but it needs to be a conversation about how do we create housing for our whole community.”
The task force is modeling its homeless services coordinator in part on a similar position created by Gresham. The city, east of Portland, has had success in finding housing for the homeless and connecting people to services, as well as responding to community concerns around illegal camping and other homelessness-related issues.
Kevin Dahlgren, a community health services adviser for Gresham, who works daily with the homeless, said every community needs a homeless liaison. Someone who can straddle the gap between government, police, the homeless and local, state and federal services. Someone who, in his words, “is right in the middle and finds out how to get things done in this chaotic world.”
Gresham’s approach is achievable in Astoria, said David Reid, the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. But housing — specifically, being able to quickly provide housing for people looking to leave the streets — is a missing component.
Since the task force’s first meeting in 2017, some of the people they hoped to help have found housing, some are in sobriety programs, some have moved to other cities and some are still on the streets. Some are dead.
At a task force meeting this month, Vernon Hall, an advocate for the homeless who has been homeless himself, read a list of names of people who have died on the streets.
“For every year you have been talking, three people have died,” he said. “We have lost hope in you guys and we are pretty sad.”
After Gail Griffey, a 72-year-old homeless woman in Astoria, died in December, some on the task force said they want to see something more concrete. More action, fewer words.
But Baker said one of the tangible benefits has been a shift in how the task force understands homelessness and talks about people who are homeless. They are no longer “those people,” she said.
Nuance and compassion will be important as discussions progress to what she believes is the next logical step: Determining what kind of affordable or transitional housing is needed and where exactly it will go.
One idea is a tiny home village model that appears to be working in Eugene. Others point to housing projects organized by nonprofits and private developers that are coming in the next year or two and will increase the affordable housing stock.
Helping Hands, which provides temporary housing for people enrolled in reentry programs, sees a need for transitional housing as people prepare to leave.
People are staying in the nonprofit’s Uniontown facility longer than case managers would expect based on their progress, simply because they cannot find housing, said Alan Evans, the executive director.
Evans estimates it used to take about a year on average for someone to work through Helping Hands’ programs and move into their own housing. Now, a number of people have been staying two to three months longer.
“We were fuller this summer than we have ever been before,” Evans said. Data that Helping Hands collects indicated the winter would bring a big influx as well. “We’re not providing (affordable housing) fast enough in our community.”
With rooms often at capacity while people wait for housing, the nonprofit has had to use space in its 18-bed emergency shelter.
The Astoria Warming Center, in particular, was relieved to have another option to offer people when Helping Hands opened in a former Finnish boarding house in 2018. The warming center, an emergency shelter that opens in the winter, caps at 35 and on the coldest and stormiest nights can fill up quickly.
But that second option is increasingly unavailable.
The warming center is one of the few shelters operating in Clatsop County and the only low-barrier option. A warming center in Warrenton is no longer able to provide space for people to sleep and has shifted to serving meals and directing people to resources. Another shelter on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula closed.
Within the homeless community, some have opened up space in their camps and sleeping areas to others who would otherwise go to the warming center on cold nights, said Annie Martin, the board president for the shelter.
The warming center has added a resource coordinator to its staff, hoping to better direct people to services.
While Martin has had her doubts about what the homelessness solutions task force could ultimately accomplish, she does believe the relationships formed at the meetings have been important.
For the warming center, a countywide homeless services coordinator could be a valuable addition: Someone with more official authority who might be able to quickly rally agencies when people need help.
In Gresham, two employees handle the bulk of routine calls related to the homeless. They try to contact every single homeless person they know every day. They realize that just because someone rejected services one day, it doesn’t mean they won’t be open to them the next day.
“We’re not pushing for any specific outcomes,” said Joe Walsh, Gresham’s senior manager for neighborhood prosperity and youth engagement. “It’s just: ‘Go do this as best you can.’ And the community loves them for it.”
Looking at the landscape in Astoria, and across Clatsop County, with a mix of complicated and basic needs, Spalding said the coordinator job could be an important link.
“If I had to pick one thing, that would definitely be up there,” he said, “and I think that should be our priority right now. My only fear is one person is not enough to do the work that needs to be done. It will take the right person to want to do this job.”