Jones fields tough questions on approach to homelessness

Keizer city councilors asked hard questions about how local leaders approach combatting homelessness at a work session Monday, April 22. 

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamete Valley Community Action Agency, fielded them without batting an eye. 

Councilor Dan Kohler said some constituents asked him when enough was enough given the large amounts on money spent on homeless nationwide over the past five decades. 

“In my experience, almost everyone I talk to wants assistance,” said Jones. “10 percent of the [homeless] population are difficult to house, 10 percent will never be housed on their own and 80 percent are somewhere in between or transitionally homeless.”

Jones wants local government officials to rethink the entire approach and focus on the 10 percent that are chronically homeless and in need of wraparound services. 

“Taking care of that 10 percent is a sizable chunk of the ones initiating the most complaints. The top 100 most dire individuals can cost the community $100,000 annually in emergency services and doesn’t include court costs and jail. It costs an extraordinary amount of money to not house this population,” Jones said. 

He added the homeless population is more visible now because the overall population is much larger than when government first began attempting to combat homelessness. 

City Manager Chris Eppley asked whether the fundamental approach to serving the homeless is flawed given the lack of success in curbing the problem.

Jones said the traditional approach has been to house the individuals most open to rapid rehousing. It makes the outcomes look good on paper and elicits positive response from the community, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, he said. 

“We haven’t had our priorities straight and that comes from private organizations and legislative direction that emphasize to specific segments of the population, such as veterans, families and youth,” Jones said. 

Kohler asked whether creating safety net of services would only attract more homeless individuals to the area as word spreads. 

As part of the work the CAA is doing, Jones is tracking where individuals were born and how long they’ve been in the community. 

“Many of them weren’t born here, but you could walk into the grocery store and find out the same thing about the customers there,” he said. “Virtually none of the homeless in our area were born in this community, but when I asked them how long they’ve been in this area, almost all of them have been here 10 to 15 years. And they weren’t homeless when they arrived here,” Jones said. 

When it came to the matter of Marion County and its neighbors breaking away from the Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC) and establishing a new Continuum of Care with Polk and Yamhill Counties, Councilor Laura Reid asked what the effect would be on the other 25 counties that comprise the ROCC. 

“The ROCC would be getting less money, but we aren’t even getting a fair geographic share of those funds. They might be eligible for some funding that they aren’t with Marion County in the mix and I anticipate that their systems will improve a little bit, but this isn’t a spectacular outcome for them,” Jones said.