As Alan Evans reflects on the 27 years he spent homeless, drifting from shelters to other impermanent housing, he remembers the crushing sense of helplessness he felt. Some days, he says, the desire to die was stronger than the desire to live.
That changed 9½ years ago when a 40-year-old Evans found himself staring at a phone. The phone sat there, and he stared at it long and hard before he realized he had no one to call. The realization hit him like a weight.
He was alone.
Involved with drugs and alcohol from a young age, essentially homeless since his youth, Evans was able to turn his life around. But that transformation didn’t come quickly, and it didn’t come easily. Navigating Oregon’s Byzantine world of social services was a challenge, he says. Often, he didn’t know where he could turn for answers or where he could go for services.
“I thought the system was confusing,” says Evans, who now works as the director of Helping Hands in Seaside. The charity operates in a tri-county area composed of Clatsop, Lincoln and Yamhill counties.
Evans was part of a coalition of local social service agencies that worked for a year drafting Clatsop County’s first Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.
At the end of May, the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners gave a nod of approval to the plan, which is intended to present a course of action for the county’s social service organizations in their battle against homelessness.
Advocates for the plan, including Evans, say it will improve collaboration among the county’s various social service organizations. For many people living on the streets, who may be struggling with addiction or mental illness, the last recourse is often jail, Evans says.
“In communities where there isn’t collaboration between social services,” he says, “getting arrested is like getting rescued.”
Helping Hands runs a thrift shop and several shelters totaling 42 beds in Clatsop County, along with space set aside for classes on various life skills. Programs at Helping Hands focus on substance abuse recovery and parenting, among other topics.
Evans says the services are important in rehabilitating homeless populations back into society. But, he adds, they’re only part of a larger picture.
In a presentation to the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners May 23, George Sabol – director of Clatsop Community Action, which took a lead role in drafting the plan – said the purpose of the plan was to provide a top-down view of the county’s homeless services and highlight ways for interagency collaboration in the future.
More than that, drafting the plan was intended to meet state and federal guidelines, which recommend that communities approve long-term plans to end homelessness before receiving federal grant money, often for housing assistance programs.
At the county level, such a plan has been on the boards since 2002, Sabol told commissioners. The plan didn’t move forward until last year, when Clatsop Community Action concluded that a long-term plan would likely have to be in place in coming years to ensure that the county’s nonprofits continued receiving grant funding.
On grant proposals in recent years, Sabol says he’s typically written that a long-term plan to address homelessness has been “in the works” at the county level. He expects the noncommittal option of stating that a plan is in the works will disappear from grant applications in the near future.
“We feel with the loss of that option the funding sources will disappear also,” Sabol told commissioners.
Priorities listed in the plan include such goals as identifying housing units for people who have been incarcerated or are on parole, improving services for people who are being discharged from institutions and implementing new data-sharing technology for social service providers.
Despite the name of the plan, Sabol told commissioners he does not expect the plan to accomplish its namesake goal of ending homelessness in 10 years.
“We all know we aren’t going to end homelessness in 10 years,” Sabol said. “(The plan) gives the view of where we want to go and how we want to get there.”
County officials say the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is not intended to be a panacea. More than anything, they say, it’s intended to start discussions about how to combat homelessness across multiple agencies.
But the yearlong process, replete with a charrette held in Bend in October, did not please everyone who participated in it. Some partners who worked on the plan say it is needlessly vague.
Pat Burness, the director of the Women’s Resource Center, was a member of the group that put the plan together and says she left the process disappointed. The plan, she says, lacks specifics, especially concerning the funding of services.
“From (our) perspective, having run a homeless shelter, we were hoping the plan would explain how collaborations would be formed and put in place a process for community input so there would be a clearer way to determine who gets funding,” Burness says.
Last year, the Women’s Resource Center was forced to shut down its homeless shelter Pioneer House because of a lack of funding. At the time of Pioneer House’s closure, there was little outreach or support from the county’s other social service providers, she says.
In the place of the homeless shelter, the Women’s Resource Center in August opened Hutchens House Shelter, which provides shelter to the victims of domestic abuse.
But Burness says she remains concerned about the lack of funding options for her organization. On Sunday, the Women’s Resource Center stands to lose $6,000 a year in housing assistance money that’s filtered through Clatsop Community Action.
Her concern is that the way in which money for homeless programs passes hands in Clatsop County is unclear.
She says her organization has little control over how federal grants are dispensed. That’s because of how U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars make their way through counties..
In the late 1980s, HUD created the concept of “Continuum of Care” organizations and encouraged communities and organizations that received funding for homeless services to do so through their local organizations. In Clatsop County, that organization is Community Action Team – a tri-county agency, covering Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties, which has a contract with Clatsop Community Action to provide the pass-through dollars.
However, a lack of money has become a top issue for many service providers in recent years, as federal cuts to social service programs have become a persistent reality in the years following the economic collapse of 2008.
Agencies end up competing against each other for the remaining money, service providers say.
Mark Terranova, executive director of Restoration House in Seaside, also worked on the plan. He says more could be done to clarify the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness – especially if it’s intended to create better collaboration between nonprofits that handle homeless populations.
“The county needs a 10-year plan. So it’s an excellent initial strategy. Do I feel more work needs to be done? Absolutely,” Terranova says. “But it’s really a document that’s never complete.”
Numbers show more homeless
One reason the document may never be complete is because Clatsop County’s homeless population continues to grow.
Data collected from Clatsop County’s 10-day homeless count for 2012 showed an increase in the number of homeless families and an increase in homeless individuals over the 2011 figures. The changes translated to 459 homeless families in 2012, versus 258 in 2011, and 653 homeless individuals in 2012, compared to 407 during the previous year.
The numbers track statewide trends, which have waxed more than waned in recent years.
The increasing numbers, though not directly tracked by the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority, are nonetheless a cause for concern at the organization. The housing authority typically provides low-income housing that is considered a last line of defense against homelessness.
At the housing authority, located in Warrenton, decreases to its funding through HUD has forced the agency to keep a close watch over its federally funded affordable housing voucher program, says the housing authority’s Executive Director Todd Johnston.
In 2011, 100 Clatsop County residents rented low-income housing directly through the housing authority. Another 435 families received housing assistance through the voucher program, which reimburses private landlords for offering low-income rentals. In 2011, Northwest Oregon Housing Authority paid $1.6 million to private landlords for low-income housing reimbursements, and the waiting list is lengthy.
“We’ve seen our waiting list grow in the last two to three years,” Johnston said, citing a three-year wait to get into an available low-income apartment. “And I attribute that to the downturn in the economy. We just haven’t seen as much turnover with the program. People are holding onto their vouchers for longer.”
People can hold onto their housing vouchers indefinitely, and many permanently disabled and elderly people do, Johnston says.
Adding to the burden have been budget cuts to the voucher program. In each of the last three years, HUD funding to the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority has been cut. By 2012, the agency’s budget dropped to 74 percent of its pre-2010 levels.
The agency’s budget is slated to increase by 7 percent during the 2013 fiscal year, but it will still be well below the suitable levels, Johnston says.
“Unfortunately, there’s always more need than there is funding for the vouchers,” Johnston says. “And I don’t think that’s unique.”
Picking up the pieces
Without local services in place, Kelley Wright says he’d still be on the streets.
Wright was released from prison in March 2009 after serving a 13-month term. Upon his release, he had no permanent home, no job and no prospects for either. He bummed around Oregon, worked for the U.S. Forest Service for a bit, but remained essentially homeless.
He blames his alcoholism and drug abuse for landing him in prison. He started drinking at 12 and never turned back until he was well into middle age and after he landed in prison.
But now he’s been sober for three years, lives at the Helping Hands emergency shelter in Seaside and provides handiwork around the building when it’s needed.
Pointing to a new raised floor he helped install, he beams with pride and taps it with is foot. “This is pretty sturdy,” he says.
He says the programs offered at Helping Hands have had a huge impact on his life. He’s begun the process of reconciling with his son after taking a class on parenting, and is happy to mentor younger guys who come through the substance abuse classes.
“The way the program works is: You can’t stay clean unless you’re helping someone else. If you can do that, you can stay clean,” he says. “A lot of addicts are terribly self-centered.”
Evans, the director of Helping Hands, says he believes the county’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness will help more people like Wright, who are looking for local services.
But it will take buy-in from all local service providers, he says.
As for Wright, who’s seen his fortunes improve in the last three years, he may be homeless but he’s no longer sad.
He continues taking steps toward a better life.
“The biggest deal for me is I can go to bed at night and be OK with myself,” Wright says. “I have true friends now. They’ll do anything for me like I’ll do anything for them.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.