by Helen Caswell

Housing First

“People living day to day on the street are only able to live in survival mode,” says Pamella Watson, who is a member of the Salem Homeless Coalition, is chair of the Homeless Task Force at First Congregational Church of Christ, and is one of Salem’s “arta-pottie ladies.”

“These people are consumed with looking for their next meal, looking for a place to sleep. So if you are able to get them into shelter, you allow them to get out of survival mode and start addressing issues.”

Salem homeless advocates like Watson are increasingly looking to a model called “Housing First,” an approach advocated by the National Alliance to End Homelessness that centers on providing people experiencing homelessness with permanent rental housing as quickly as possible – and only then providing services like medical care, employment and clothing as needed.

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Proposed plan for Emerald Village in Eugene

The model is endorsed by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, which includes the heads of such agencies as the US Department of Education, US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of the Interior. The Council says, “Study after study has shown that Housing First yields higher housing retention rates, drives significant reductions in the use of crisis services and institutions, and helps people achieve improved health and social outcomes.”

A four-year study conducted by the Chicago Housing for Health Partnership, for example, showed that moving homeless people into permanent housing quickly improved their lives and saved taxpayer money. “The old status quo responses of ad hoc crisis intervention are more expensive,” Philip Mangano, former executive director of the Council, said at the time of the study.


Salem agencies support the philosophy

Here in Salem, the Housing First approach is approved by T.J. Putman, Executive Director of Salem’s Interfaith Hospitality Network, an agency that provides year-round temporary shelter for four families of “guests” with 18 rotating “host” church congregations. The goal is to help the family find a permanent rental home, as well as addressing employment and health issues and keeping family members together during times of transition.

Putman says the Network “follows a Housing First model. We believe homelessness is a housing issue.” Putman’s agency – which finds permanent housing for 91% of its guests – must turn away forty families a month for its transitional housing.

The Community Access Resource Center with the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (CAA) tells a similar story, recently estimating that it had 163 households currently on its waiting list for a permanent place to live.


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PNW innovates

Pacific Northwest communities are exploring several approaches to creating housing for those without shelter.  One effort is SquareOne Villages in Eugene. This 501(c)3 non-profit creates self-managed communities of low-cost “tiny houses” or “micro housing” for people in need of shelter. It is a transitional model that does not offer kitchens or bathrooms but gives people a place to sleep and store belongings while they work towards permanent housing

Opportunity Village Eugene began in the summer of 2013. Through a collaboration between the housed and unhoused, the effort resulted in a score of 60-80 sf tiny houses for 30 people; thus far, 65% of former residents have transitioned into permanent housing.

In this model, cooking, restrooms and laundry are consolidated to keep costs low. The community is largely self-governed. Residents are expected to follow five basic rules, including the payment of $30/month for utilities, working 8 hours/week at the front desk and specified hours devoted to community improvement, restroom cleaning and attendance at meetings.

Costs for running the entire enterprise are estimated at $1,800/month. “If costs are amortized over 5 years and similar operating costs ore assumed,” says SquareOne, the village costs $3/night per person for the 30 residents. Of that cost, $1/night is paid for or raised by residents.

SquareOne has taken on the challenge of permanent housing with its second project, Emerald Villages Eugene. Emerald Villages will be a 15-unit micro house, affordable housing community that singles and couples can permanently transition into – or sell their equity in when they leave. At 150 – 250 sf, the units will have kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms. A number of architects have offered to design the houses, which will generally be created for under $15,000 each.

Portland has a long-running transitional destination in Dignity Village, a city-recognized “campground” since 2001. It includes tents and other small living structures for about 60 people on land near the Portland International Airport. Dignity is “transitional” housing, has a 501(c)3 non-profit designation, requires residents pay for utilities ($20/month) and requires them adhere to bylaws.


Salem’s affordable housing options inadequate

Currently, Salem has no active plans to allow or construct transitional or permanent set-aside communities like those in Eugene or Portland. Agencies such as the St. Francis Shelter on Berry St., the Union Gospel Mission on Commercial St. NE and the Interfaith Hospitality Network provide critical temporary and transitional shelter. But those who support the Housing First model locally work mainly on accessing pre-existing permanent housing units – homes, apartments, townhouses or other shelters that are already on the rental market.

The impediment most widely and repeatedly cited by them is the severe lack of low-income options in Polk and Marion counties – especially in Salem.

At its February 1 meeting, 23 attending members of the Salem Homeless Coalition, a group of community people facilitated by Audrey Schackel, voted on their most urgent concerns for those experiencing homelessness in our area. Affordable permanent housing won the vote hands down.

Last year’s CAA Homeless Count estimated 1,660 people were living without shelter in Marion and Polk counties, including 491 school-age children. Many of these individuals seek and obtain a “Section 8 voucher” from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.) The program is administered locally by the Salem Housing Authority, which pays a HUD subsidy directly to landlords on behalf of the individual or family.

But people with Section 8 vouchers find that there are almost no housing units available.

Ken Houghton works with the Supportive Services for Veterans Families Program in Salem, an agency which provides veterans in Marion and Polk counties with support services funded through the US Department of Veteran Affairs and administered through the ARCHES Project for CAA and Easter Seals. Houghton is keenly aware of the difficulties involved in locating public and affordable housing for homeless veterans. He believes the core of the problem is that, “Right now we have less than 2% vacancy in Salem.”

Verena Wessel, Community Relations Manager for Northwest Human Services, agrees. Wessel says supply and demand has greatly impacted our area and rents have shot far above what Section 8 vouchers can cover. “Here in Salem we’re seeing the spillover from Portland as rents skyrocket there,” she says. “Portland people locate here because they can afford it better and they don’t think an hour is too far to drive [to work.] So in Salem now there are just not enough units – period. And people in need can’t afford the few units there are. And a lot of people have to give up their voucher because of this.”

Houghton believes the lack of affordable permanent housing is “a big picture problem for Salem, and something that’s getting bigger. It’s obvious to me that more people who are on a fixed income such as seniors and the disabled will start becoming homeless because so little housing is affordable here now.”


Salem people who might be helped, those who won’t

The Housing First philosophy admits that for some who experience truly chronic homelessness, intensive (and often specialized) services will be needed indefinitely. Homeless advocates like Watson also acknowledge that some will never want to be sheltered because of medical and personality qualities, an inability to comply with guidelines, and the requirement of some programs that participants be substance-abuse free and have no criminal record.

But for most experiencing homelessness, the Housing First model is an achievable means of important and transformative relief.

With the current deficit of affordable housing in our area, advocates and officials enquiring into local homelessness may find themselves considering a variety of ideas, including our own tiny houses, the construction of an apartment house for veterans or rehabilitating old buildings like those on the old North Campus of the Oregon State Hospital or aging hotels.

Or a combination of the above. What is certain is that action taken now to devise permanent housing will reduce both costs for the community and hardship for those most affected.