County may chart own course on homelessness

Two leaders of the Mid-Willamette Valley Homelessness Initiative encouraged the Keizer City Council to back a resolution essentially seceding from a larger regional group combatting homelessness in Oregon. 

Marion County is currently part of the Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC), a group that consists of 27 other Oregon counties and includes enough geographic territory that it would comprise the 16th largest state in the union. Membership in that group is likely reducing Marion County’s access to federal support to combat homelessness. Since joining ROCC, the Marion County has seen its level of financial support from federal resources drop, from a peak of $1.05 million in 2012 to just under $700,000 in 2018. 

Unless the Marion County leaves ROCC, its ability to compete for federal funding will only get worse, said Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Community Action Agency, one of the leading groups combatting homelessness locally. 

“The quality of the services we have will deteriorate. As a result, the time to leave is this moment,” Jones said. 

Jones and Janet Carlson, a former county commissioner and now consultant for the Homelessness Initiative, aren’t suggesting Marion County strike out on its own entirely. They would like to form a new Continuum of Care (COC) alliance with Polk and Yamhill Counties as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. 

COC development is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to qualify for funding at the federal level. That funding can assist with everything from construction of affordable housing to domestic violence and addiction services and healthcare for the homeless. 

Marion and Polk counties once operated under their own COC, but the administrative duties were mostly handled by non-profits. In an effort to ease the burden of administrative duties, local leaders opted to join the ROCC in 2012. It was a decision that flew under the radar of local elected officials, but it’s had a devastating effect on the federal money available to serve the local homeless population. 

“I had been a commissioner eight years when it happened and I was not aware of it until 2018,” Carlson said. 

The main handicap that arose from Marion County being lumped in with the ROCC is that, even when major strides are being made locally, the score HUD uses to determine funding levels is brought down by other communities not doing as much. Scores are based on data collection and successful outcomes.

The ROCC’s current score is less than 140 and only those scoring above the 166 are considered competitive. Clackamas County has one of the best scores in the nation at 190 “and gets all of what they are asking for,” Jones said. 

Those scores translate into dollars to combat homelessness, and Marion County lags far behind its neighbors in that regard. Washington County gets an allocation of roughly $5,900 per year per homeless person. Clackamas County gets just under $5,000. Lane County, which has operated under its own COC for at least 20 years, gets $2,400 per person. The 28 counties operating under the ROCC get $550 per homeless person. 

At that same time, the counties in the ROCC represent the ninth largest homeless population in the country and the 10th largest chronically homeless population.

“We’ve been bearing the battle for the day and haven’t been able to take the investments we are making and spin them up the way we should be to meet the need of the community,” said Mayor Cathy Clark. Clark was one of the original members of the Homelessness Initiative. 

The city council will take up a resolution on the establishment of a new COC in the near future.