Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek recently announced three executive orders to address housing and homelessness and asked lawmakers to put $130 million toward unsheltered Oregonians. We’ll hear from Beaverton Mayor Lacey Beaty, Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann and Lincoln County Commissioner Claire Hall about what they’d like to see next.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. On her first day as Oregon Governor, Tina Kotek announced a series of executive orders intended to address homelessness and affordable housing. They include emergency declarations in the most populous parts of the state and a statewide effort to build more homes. Local leaders throughout Oregon are happy that the state’s chief executive is focused on one of the biggest problems in the state, but they also want to make sure that they have the resources and the power to respond in their own ways. In a few minutes we’re going to get the perspective from a Lincoln County commissioner, but we start with two city leaders. Lacey Beaty is the mayor of Beaverton. Dave Drotzmann is the mayor of Hermiston. Welcome to you both.
Dave Drotzmann: Good morning.
Lacey Beaty: Thank you for having us.
Miller: How serious a problem is homelessness in Hermiston right now?
Drotzmann: I think on a per capita basis we have as serious of a problem as any major city in the state. We just don’t hit the front page of The Oregonian, so maybe it’s not as recognized or as popular as in the major metropolitan areas. But we do have an issue that we’re working to try and address with a humane solution.
Miller: So what does it look like? How visible is homelessness in Hermiston right now?
Drotzmann: Well, we have some of our city parks that have been occupied with tents. We have individuals that we see visibly walking up and down our streets. And so, we receive complaints from neighbors and city constituents about visibility. So it’s not maybe as visible as some of these streets in Portland, but it’s definitely making a presence in Hermiston.
Miller: And also becoming a political issue, if residents are complaining to elected leaders?
Drotzmann: It can be. I think the residents are feeling sad for the individuals and looking for support and how they can help. They do create some challenges sometimes with trash or accessibility, some of the park access solutions.
Miller: What about in a much bigger city, one of the largest cities in the state? What does homelessness look like overall in Beaverton right now?
Beaty: That’s a great question, and I just would not underscore how big of an issue this is facing my community. I don’t think one day goes by where I don’t get a call, an email, a tweet or a facebook post about a homeless issue in Beaverton. We have two kinds of homeless issues happening. We have the highest rate of teen homelessness in the state, which is not visible. It’s one of our worst statistics, and it’s something that as mayor, I’ve not been able to move the dial on as we’re working through things. And secondly, we have a very large, visible homeless population in Beaverton.
We have a really great team at Beaverton that addresses issues heads on. And so we’re able to serve people where they are, and then something else pops up along the way. But I would say it’s visible and invisible here, which is a hard issue. But it’s also probably the most nonpartisan issue, as the mayor, that I’ve dealt with. People across the entire political spectrum want us to solve homelessness. Sometimes, how they want us to solve it seems partisan, but I think we can all agree it’s very visible here in our own community.
Miller: How do you explain that stat you mentioned earlier, that Beaverton has the highest rate of teen homelessness in the entire state of Oregon?
Beaty: I explain it as like a humanitarian crisis and a failure for young people in our community. We’re seeing kids couchsurfing, so they don’t end up in time and point. And so some of the statistics that we use to rally services around homelessness is once a year when we come together as a community and we count people. Well, that number is missing when we talk about homelessness, but it’s an issue close to my heart. As the mayor, my husband experienced homelessness as a teenager. It’s something we work vigorously to solve, but it’s an issue of epic proportion in our community.
Miller: I’m curious what went through your mind when you heard the governor’s executive order announcements and calls for more money from the legislature and really her very first act as governor?
Beaty: I think it’s going to be one of the most monumental things our governor will be able to do. It brings a statewide focus on a very local issue. And I think what we have to remember as a community is that it takes every level of government working together to solve problems. This is not an issue the city is equipped to deal with on our own. We have to work with our county, we have to work with our metro level government here in the Washington County area. And we need the governor’s support. And we also need the state legislature around the ask that all 241 mayors in the state have made to the legislature to work on an ongoing funding package for us. And I think it’s a good reminder that there is no simple solution to complex problems.
Miller: So, Mayor Drotzmann, what about you? In the big picture, what went through your mind when you heard the governor’s recent announcements?
Drotzmann: No, I think we were excited. She was living up to a campaign promise that on day one that she was going to address homelessness and housing and came out with an executive order on day one. And so we were super supportive of that. The OMA, the Oregon Mayors Association, put together a task force over the course of the last year that brought together 25 mayors across the state, all diverse backgrounds, city sizes, political demographics. You name it, a very diverse group.
We came forward with the unified message that said the legislature and the governor need to do more and we need to recognize this as a statewide problem with statewide solutions. And we all need to commit to work on this. And so the OMA proposal went to the legislature and went to all three gubernatorial candidates. And so we were super excited to see that she named this as her number one priority.
I think the one unfortunate part of it was leaving out a group: 26 out of 36 counties were identified as not listed in the emergency order as far as the initial dollars. And so I think there’s a little bit of frustration that’s coming from rural communities that we have a statewide issue that requires a statewide response. And they were feeling a little bit left out in that executive order.
Miller: As I understand it, in terms of the emergency declaration that leaves out most of the rural counties in the state, it’s really just the state’s biggest population areas that are included in that emergency declaration. What would that mean for you?
Drotzmann: We’re still working with the governor and her office and trying to work through OEM (Office of Emergency Management) in trying to identify our county as a county that has an emergency going on as do most counties across the state. I think this is a statewide problem and most cities and counties recognize it needs to have higher priority. And the challenge that we have is that the data that we use to compare those problems is inaccurate and maybe doesn’t reflect the true problems we have in our communities. If we’re talking about PIT (Point In Time) counts, there’s a lot of counties and communities that don’t use those or can’t use those or haven’t participated in those. And so the data that we’re using sometimes is the challenge that we’re running into.
Miller: And just to remind folks that the PIT count is something that Portland area listeners may be more familiar with. Once every one or two years, folks go out and on one night in the winter, in fact it’s happening right about now, they count how many people are unsheltered in a particular community. You’re saying that in many communities that’s not done, which leads to challenges in terms of data collection, especially if you’re looking statewide.
Lacey Beaty, I want to go back to what you and Mayor Drotzmann have both been talking about, which is the Oregon Mayor’s Association’s ask to the legislature. This was originally first back in October for a lot of money, $250 million per biennium, for two years. Based on a $40 per person request, meaning every city in the state would get $40 per person to spend in some way on homelessness efforts, in Beaverton that would mean nearly $4 million. How do you propose to spend that money?
Beaty: Well, I think it’s important for listeners to know that cities have really borne the brunt of this crisis in our community. We’ve been spending that amount year over year to solve this issue, whether it’s around cleanup, bathrooms that we had to purchase, particularly during COVID. Beaverton announced a few months ago the purchase of a year round shelter. It will be the first one operating in Washington County. We secured funds from multiple levels of government. $4 million wouldn’t pay for a shelter. It would pay for a piece of a shelter. It would help pay for services that we already have.
We pay for outreach workers on the street. We have a dedicated team of bike police officers that deal with this issue in our central core as their main daily function as officers. So cities have been spending this amount of money on this issue while also dealing with other issues that we already have. I would remind people that investing in cities is a good idea. The federal government invested in us during the pandemic directly through ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. We were able to get that money out to the communities that need it most. We’re on the ground. As the mayor, people find me everywhere, at the grocery store, when I’m picking my daughter up from school. We are on the front line of this crisis and we are the most equipped to deal with this situation.
Miller: So Mayor Drotzmann, your Beaverton counterpart, Lacey Beaty, is making the argument that really the people who need to be convinced by this argument are lawmakers. What have you heard from either local lawmakers from the Hermiston area or lawmakers statewide about their response to this request?
Drotzmann: I think our local legislatures as well as most of them across the state recognize this as a humanitarian crisis that we’re all confronted with. I think most of them have prioritized homelessness and housing as well as the mental health services right at the top of their list. And so they’re supportive. I’m not sure they’re 100% supportive of the task force ask. But this is a good starting point for a conversation and I agree with Mayor Beaty, we’re the ones with the boots on the ground in our communities addressing these [issues] just currently out of general fund dollars.
And as you probably are aware about property taxes, we have some challenges in front of us of growing property taxes. And we can’t provide all those services to the constituents we have now. So these are eating up larger and larger dollar amounts out of our general fund dollars that don’t allow us to do other services. So what we’re asking for is a partnership with our legislative counterparts and the governor to help fund the issues and the challenges that we’re currently facing in our communities that we feel like are necessary and needed in our communities. And that may be local homelessness services, but it also may be prevention services or housing services that could keep people from turning into homeless individuals. So the local leaders, I think, have the best pulse on what’s necessary in their individual communities.
Miller: Mayor Drotzmann and Mayor Beaty, thanks very much.
Beaty: Thank you for having us, and please invite us back anytime. Dave and I are a great team.
Miller: Will do. Dave Drotzmann is the mayor of Hermiston. Lacey Beaty is the mayor of Beaverton. If you’re just tuning in, we are talking right now about homelessness in cities and local leader’s responses to the governor’s recent executive orders.
We turn now to another local leader. Claire Hall is a Lincoln County commissioner. Claire Hall, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Claire Hall: Thank you, Dave. Always great to be here.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the extent of homelessness in Lincoln County right now?
Hall: Sure. Can I start off with two numbers? Our most recent Point In Time count says we’ve got 122 people experiencing homelessness in the county. But our school district count says we’ve got 917. So if it sounds like we’re talking apples and oranges, we are.
Miller: How do you explain that discrepancy? It’s gigantic.
Hall: It is. And you’ll find this nationally when you compare the Point In Time count to the school district numbers. The Point In Time count to me is a blurry flawed, incomplete snapshot. There are issues with the school district data, but it’s much more inclusive. It covers people who are doubled up, living in motels. Point In Time count is basically people who are only visible on the street or in recognized shelters.
We’re not capturing people living in wooded areas, whether it’s next to town or deep in the forest. I talked, the other day, with someone in forest management for the Siuslaw Forest. They said a few years ago we’d find maybe one or two people who have set up camp in the woods. Now they’re finding encampments with two dozen people or more.
Miller: It strikes me that one bookkeeping solution or data keeping solution would be to actually do a better, more thorough Point In Time count so that statewide, we really do have a better understanding of the number of people who are homeless. Is that effort underway? I mean, can you improve this count?
Hall: Yes, I think we can and we’re working on bringing more resources to it. But still even at the best, I’ve been looking at a lot of literature about this in recent weeks and they say even the best Point In Time counts probably only capture about 30% of the actual population experiencing homelessness in one form or another. This is why we’re disappointed that the governor chose the Point In Time count as the only criteria for her executive order.
As I think you pointed out, it leaves out 26 of the 36 counties and we’ve got a severe long term challenge with homelessness. A lot of it is economic, people trying to get by on low wage seasonal part-time work. We’ve got a significant mental health and addiction problem. There are other factors. But those are the big things. So in a way, we feel like we may also be being penalized for having had a high level of homelessness for many, many years.
Miller: What would you be able to do if Lincoln County were included in the emergency declaration?
Hall: Well, I think probably our first priority would be to get some kind of permanent adult shelter established. Right now we’ve only got a family shelter with 10 apartments. We’ve got a domestic violence shelter. But in the winter we don’t have permanent shelter of any kind. We’ve done warming shelters in the past. In the last couple of winters, because of COVID, we’ve gone to putting people up in motel rooms. But again, that’s only happening in severe weather conditions. So it doesn’t give people, really, the opportunity to get stability and have an opportunity to start addressing some of the issues that have gotten them into homelessness in the first place.
Miller: So if you’re saying that the emergency declaration could help you open a shelter, are you assuming then that that money would follow directly to the county from that declaration?
Hall: Right. In the executive order, the governor talks about repurposing up to $40 million dollars of the current Oregon Housing and Community Services budget. And also I understand they haven’t come up with a firm figure, but there will be a legislative ask, a dollar amount, to help the counties that are included in the declaration. And yeah, it’s that complicated but that simple. We need to get people sheltered and off the street. We need to get them all kinds of wraparound services to address the root causes.
And I will give the governor a big shout out on the accompanying order that sets a goal of significantly increasing state production of housing because that’s the end game. And I find a lot of people still don’t realize it, you know, but emergency sheltering saves lives. But unless we get people into permanently affordable housing then, unfortunately, the cycle continues again and again and again.
Miller: You and your fellow two members of the county commission wrote this letter to the governor last week urging her to reconsider the way that she and her team made these emergency declarations. Have you gotten any response yet?
Hall: We have not, although I saw that she did respond to the Coastal Caucus, the six senators and representatives representing the coastal communities and essentially pointed to the third executive order here that calls for state agencies to prioritize homelessness and I think, do a better job of working with local communities to address it. And in principle, that’s great. But again, there are no dollars tied to that executive order.
Miller: Claire Hall, thanks very much for joining us.
Hall: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Claire Hall is a Lincoln County commissioner. She joined us to talk about the local responses to Governor Tina Koteks’ approach to homelessness. We also heard from the mayors of Beaverton and Hermiston.
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