Earlier this year, millions of dollars were allocated to counties across the state as part of a homelessness state of emergency. We hear from an organization based in rural Oregon that’s working on rehousing residents in Baker, Grant, Union and Wallowa counties. Connie Guentert is the executive director of Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, Inc. She joins us with details of the organization’s work.
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. In September, Oregon governor Tina Kotek allocated $26 million to rural counties across the state. That’s part of an emergency response to homelessness. Baker, Grant, Union and Wallowa counties received $1.2 million of that. It’ll go to re-house at least 33 households. The money is being managed by Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. Connie Guentert is the executive director of the nonprofit. She joins us now to talk about the work they do and how they will spend this new money. Welcome to the show.
Connie Guentert: Thank you so much, Dave.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the range of services that you provide?
Guentert: Oh, goodness. It is, as you mentioned earlier in the conversation, it’s really diverse. We are the area agency on aging in the counties that you mentioned which means we serve people with disabilities and seniors. We are also a public transit provider in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties, and then the Community Action Agency for Union, Baker, Wallowa and Grant counties.
Miller: Meaning with a focus on addressing and alleviating poverty?
Miller: Why do you do all these different things? I mean, being a public transit agency and providing support for aging residents in a lot of places in the states, it’s not the same agency that does those two things, let alone all the other things that you just mentioned.
Guentert: Absolutely, you’re right. I think the rurality, the rural nature of our areas really dictates the need for services to be combined so it is efficient, it’s cost effective. I believe our agency, just as a program came on, we decided to take that on and be the service provider. We try to listen to the needs of the people that we serve. So it, just given over time, evolves into a well-rounded, very comprehensive agency, serving the communities of Union, Baker and Wallowa and all the cities in between in a very efficient manner. The rural nature.
Miller: What are the challenges of being a kind of a public services Swiss Army Knife?
Guentert: Always funding, always funding. Also making sure that our focus areas - meaning, if we’re working with a senior, making sure that everything that we provide to that person is all comprehensive, and then switching gears to maybe providing a food box in the city of Wallowa. The nice thing about being that Swiss Army Knife, as you call it, is it makes us a one-stop shop.
Miller: So what might that look like when someone walks in your door or calls you up?
Guentert: I’ll give you an example of maybe what our services look like in Wallowa and Baker offices. Both those offices offer every program we have at our disposal. So if a person walks in and they’re 62 and they want to know about what’s available to seniors out in the area, we’d walk through that, what’s available, what might fit their needs. We also then educate them about the low-income programs. What we offer is a Community Action Agency. That could be a food box, that could be energy assistance for the winter season to help offset the high cost of heating a home, or even the summertime cost of cooling a home.
It could look like, hey, we have medical transportation available, if you’re no longer driving, we also have public transit. It can bring you to the meal site, it can take you shopping to Safeway or into Walmart in Union County for a day. So it’s very interesting. We have to be very knowledgeable across a broad spectrum of programs.
Miller: It’s not just the broad spectrum of programs you’re providing, but it’s also the enormous geographic scale that we’re talking about. To put it in perspective, the distance between one end of your service area and the other, it’s like a Portlander going to the Oregon-California border. That’s how long it is. What does that mean for your organization?
Guentert: It means stretched services because of staffing. In Grant County, we currently have one staff member up there providing our Community Action Agency programs – that would be energy assistance, housing and that..
Miller: For all of Grant County?
Guentert: For all of Grant County.
Miller: Which itself is gigantic.
Guentert: Right? One person. It doesn’t mean we don’t support from Baker County, if we have staff down there, or from our administrative office here in La Grande. For senior programs, we contract with Grant County itself to provide those services and they have the employees. It’s huge.
Miller: Let’s turn to homelessness. Can you give us a sense for what homelessness can look like in Northeastern Oregon right now?
Guentert: If I say right now, homelessness looks like the cost of living is so high, now – the cost of food, the cost of gas - families are making a choice between paying their rent, paying their power bill or feeding their families. So us having the ability to have the emergency funds the Governor put through legislation is really important. It allows us to keep people in their homes longer term, maybe to get through the current high costs that we’re all facing.
We see unsheltered homeless across all four counties. People are couch surfing, meaning they’re staying with friends. They’re pitching tents, they’re living in their cars. What I do find interesting, unfortunately, in rural areas such as ours the houselessness and unsheltered people in our communities, they don’t have the exposure that you would often find in Salem or Portland, just because it’s not at the scale that they face. But if you compare the population base to the percentage of homelessness, you’d see they’re very, very equal.
Miller: Has homelessness changed in significant ways in the time that you’ve been working in social services?
Guentert: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve been in social services 16 years with this agency and how we used to see homelessness was definitely couch surfing or they’re staying with friends or in an RV. That’s how we’ve seen it: very, very minimally. Now we see it in our face. People are pitching tents, they’re in the city parks, they’re living under bridges, it’s a very sad state of affairs.
Miller: One difference between some of the biggest population centers in the state and in Northeastern Oregon is that it gets significantly colder there. Do you see unsheltered homeless people in the winter, when it could easily be 10 degrees in various places?
Guentert: I am so glad you brought that up, it can even be minus 20 in Grant or Wallowa counties. People have to be sheltered before November. So housing has to be available for us to pay rent through the cold winter months, six months at a time, if possible. They have to have a place of warmth, security, to be able to survive the winter, because they’re not going to be able to survive out in the tents or living in their car. It’s just not sustainable.
Miller: What else do you think people in larger urban areas may not understand about the issues that rural counties are facing when it comes to homelessness?
Guentert: I think in the more urban areas you have multiple resources. As we talked about in our earlier part of the conversation, our agency does so much. There are so many resources available in those metropolitan areas. A person who’s unsheltered, could go and stay at a shelter for a week, if that’s the term that they can stay. They can then maybe find a church to help put them in a hotel.
In our more urban areas, having a shelter, a warming station or a houseless shelter, it’s not always there. I can tell you that in Union County we have one warming station and that is the only warming station for unsheltered houseless people between Pendleton and Ontario. That’s it.
Miller: Wow. One place.
Guentert: One place, and their capacity right now is between 24 to 30 beds a night. That’s it.
Miller: What did you learn from the most recent Point-in-Time Count? Speaking of numbers.
Guentert: You know, the Point-in-Time Count is a conundrum to me. I think the national data that’s picked is wonderful. You get a true sense of homelessness across the entire nation. However, in cold areas like ours, people are housed - they have to be housed because of our weather. So I don’t believe it gives a true accurate picture of houselessness in our area.
Miller: You know, I asked you about what you think people in urban areas may not understand or may not be thinking about when it comes to homelessness in places like Northeastern Oregon. But what misconceptions do you think people in your own area have about homeless populations?
Guentert: Oh, goodness. I wouldn’t want to project my opinions on to somebody else or make assumptions, but…
Miller: Well, I imagine you needn’t make assumptions, but I imagine you do hear actual people saying actual things.
Guentert: We do. I think there are assumptions out there that houselessness is all based on drug use, how people spend their money. It’s always a matter of choice. They don’t have to be houseless. And those are misconceptions. You can have a family, living in their van or their car because they don’t have good rental history. So they need to work with community partners and have the availability to re-energize rental history. It could be as minimal as one episode of being ill and not being able to work. If you’re not able to work and not able to get unemployment because you’re not out there seeking a job, how do you pay your rent? And rents here for a single apartment range from $750 to $1,600. How does one live like that? The cost of living is so high that it has such an impact on each individual situation.
Miller: Well, let’s turn to this new money from the state, $1.2 million shared between the work you do in four different counties. What are you going to be doing with that money?
Guentert: We are gonna be working with the one and only warming station available here, trying to support their efforts in housing more people through the winter months. They did not receive any additional funding from Oregon Housing and Community Services. We wrote a couple grants with them and they weren’t funded, so we’re going to work with them.
We are also going to work with local landlords to be able to increase some units, if available. So, one particular RV space owner in Wallowa County, that owner has the ability to add on maybe eight more spaces. We can help him get that prepared so that RV’s can be parked there to provide, during the winter months, some warm places for people to stay.
Miller: So in a sense, that is a kind of a makeshift shelter. Or that would be one family’s semi-permanent home.
Guentert: Correct. Keeping them warm through the winter months. We’re also working with local hotel, motel owners in all four counties. So that way we can purchase blocks of hotel rooms. That way if we have a family they can at least be in a hotel room for a week or two or four weeks at a time during the cold months, or while they’re looking for a permanent place to live.
All of these services that we’re trying to work through this EO funding is all about self sufficiency, wrap-around services. We wanna be able to pay people’s rent to keep them in their homes, whether that’s 12 months of rental assistance while they go ahead and find jobs, save up money to prepare for when that assistance ends. We’re also going to use it with case management to bring in other community resources, which is a wonderful part of being in a rural area. We have wonderful community partners and we all work well together to find a solution for each family that is very specific to them, whether that be working with the local medical facilities, mental health, court systems, the local community health programs, Department of Health and Human Services. Whatever that looks like, we’re gonna be working with all of our partners to keep those families housed, fed, warm as long as we can. Hopefully, step up out of the houseless situation, and keep them in more permanent housing.
Miller: Have you already been spending this money to help families?
Guentert: We actually haven’t, we were only signed last week, our complete grant. The wonderful thing about this grant that the governor did, is it doesn’t end until June of 2025. So hopefully having the ability to work 18 to 24 months with a family or with these funds helps create that long-term stability that families need for houselessness.
Miller: This is one-term money though, right?
Guentert: My understanding, it’s one-term money.
Miller: What happens when it’s gone?
Guentert: Oh, goodness. I think we all have that on our minds and I don’t know if anyone has an answer to that. Our answer with this funding, what was important to all of us as a planning group, was to create self-sufficiency. How can we support people who want to find jobs, who want to be self-sufficient? What does that look like? And it really came down to the wraparound services. What can we do to provide a hand up for long-term sustainability?
Miller: Connie, thank you very much.
Guentert: Well, thank you for the time. I really appreciate focusing on rural Oregon.
Miller: Connie Guentert is the executive director of Community Connection of Northeast Oregon.
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