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As Oregon governor candidates spar over homelessness, local advocates say long-term solutions needed

Register-Guard - 8/28/2018

Aug. 28--While Oregon's candidates for governor outline their proposals to reduce homelessness, the top administrator of a Lane County nonprofit that addresses homelessness says both candidates' proposals would likely fail to significantly improve the issue.

Other local homeless advocates or formerly homeless community members said they were unaware of the gubernatorial candidates' policy proposals. But they stressed access to housing and mental health services as the largest barriers to ending homelessness in Oregon.

"The problem is, it's going to require a substantial amount of money," said Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. "Where is that going to come from?"

Republican challenger Knute Buehler this month released a seven-point plan he says would end homelessness statewide by 2023. Among other steps it would seek to ease the flow of federal Medicaid money for mental health and drug treatment programs, while spending $10 million in his first two years in office to help fund 4,000 temporary shelter beds and 4,000 supportive housing beds. His plan also would provide $50 million for rental payment assistance.

Gov. Kate Brown hasn't released a set of policies like Buehler's. But Brown campaign spokesman Christian Gaston said she plans to spend more than $300 million on programs such as low-income housing, mental health and addiction, if re-elected.

Yet both proposals would almost certainly fail to meet Buehler's audacious goal of ending homelessness in Oregon, McDonald said.

"You've still got to get somebody to approve of these numbers. We can't even agree to cut back on the kicker" tax rebate to raise funds for homeless services, McDonald said, referring to the state program that sends tax revenue back to residents when actual revenue comes in more than 2 percent higher than estimates.

"Anytime somebody says they're going to end homelessness with whatever plan, I get a little skeptical," he said. "Do I appreciate the effort and focus on the issue? Yes. But they're not going to end homelessness with that kind of money."

Other advocates say the candidates' plans bring attention to the issue, but they need to prioritize funds for housing, substance abuse and mental health counseling. Any solution would require a large public investment, they said.

Kevin McGehee was homeless off and on for 15 years in Phoenix, Ariz., before moving to Springfield around 2006. It wasn't until he found his way to the White Bird Clinic in Eugene a year later that he heard about ShelterCare, a local nonprofit that helps homeless individuals or families transition into stable housing.

Through ShelterCare, McGehee accessed counseling and medication to address his bipolar disorder. He eventually got a job, access to food stamps and was placed on the Section 8 housing wait list. He's been in a home for years. Many people in the long-term homeless community lack the skills to find the best care for themselves, so nonprofits such as ShelterCare play a key role in addressing homelessness, he said.

"Things got a lot better with ShelterCare," McGehee, 61, said. "I got a therapist. I had meds before, but I got better meds. There was some trial and error until I found the right medication. The same goes for a therapist; it's not always a good fit. You've got to advocate for yourself."

His case shows how intertwined housing and mental health issues are, ShelterCare Executive Director Susan Ban and other nonprofit administrators said.

With real estate values rising across much of Oregon, Ban said politicians locally and statewide should look for creative ways to raise revenue for housing and support programs such as counseling. Revisiting a state ban on taxing home sales or implementing taxes on new construction could generate the funding needed to make a real dent in housing supply and access to services.

"Anything that can help add to the array of housing makes low-end housing more affordable, so that's really important," Ban said. "And most of the people we work with to get into housing have long histories of homelessness, and require intense support to be successful in that transition."

Lane County's annual one-day homeless count in January found more than 1,640 people on the street, in a shelter or in transitional housing, up 7 percent from the year before but down from the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Yet more than 15,000 people reported being homeless at least once in 2017, according to government agencies and local nonprofits that report to the county's client and homeless management information system.

Substantially lowering those numbers would take large investments in low-income housing construction and emergency rental assistance, said Tom Mulhern, executive director of Cascade Community Services of Lane County. But the region also needs to bring in more living-wage jobs to keep vulnerable minimum-wage workers from cycling in and out of homelessness.

"A lot of people are living paycheck-to-paycheck. It doesn't take much for people to get tipped over the edge and be in crisis," Mulhern said. Catholic Community Services provides emergency rental assistance to qualified applicants, and connects them with a rental housing counselor who can help clients with housing searches and offer guidance with applications.

But the state needs to make sure programs give equal support to long-term homeless and also recently homeless people and families with vehicles and work histories, he said. Getting off the street or out of a car and into shelter becomes harder and often far more expensive the longer someone is homeless.

"Things fall apart pretty quick," Mulhern said. "A family can hold (themselves) together living in a car for a few weeks or even months. They just can't do that for years on end. A family is going to kind of fall apart."

Follow Elon Glucklich on Twitter @EGlucklich. Email elon.glucklich@registerguard.com.

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