Progress Made On TAC Report, But Officials Question If They Are Treading Water

Oct 21, 2020

 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

The Technical Assistance Collaborative report, known as the shelter feasibility study, was released in 2018 with a five-year goal of decreasing the number of chronic homelessness in Lane County. But, at the time it was created it wasn't using the best data, nor did it account for a global pandemic and a destructive wildfire.

 


Now, into the second year of the project, the city of Eugene and Lane County may have to rethink how to continue implementing the TAC report.

 

 

The TAC report, conducted by a Boston-based company, utilized data from the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count. The PIT is a national count meant to estimate the number of unhoused individuals during a single night in a city or county. 

The final TAC report included a number of recommendations including constructing a 75-bed shelter and navigation center and adding 350 units of permanent supportive housing.

Participating in PIT is critical for local governments that use federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But only counting homelessness on a single night is a drawback of PIT.  Critics say it doesn’t account for seasonal changes or trends that might occur throughout the year; PIT counts typically take place in the winter during January.

To get a better understanding of the situation, the county started using data from the Homelessness By Name List (HBNL) that’s based on the Homeless Management Information System. 

The county has publicly released data from Jan. 2019 through last September. It works by tracking the number of people using services for the unhoused though providers.

Findings from HBNL show the county has more unhoused individuals than the PIT typically estimates. The TAC report, when created, relied on data between 2011 to 2018, which referred to a smaller number of homeless people in the county. 

For example, the most recent January 2019 point-in-time count suggests there were more than 2,100 unsheltered individuals on a single night in January. Meanwhile, the By-Name count showed nearly twice as many homeless people were actively using homeless services that month. 

Though the By-Name list gives officials and providers a better scope of the number of people experiencing homelessness, it isn’t a complete picture. 

“This is a database that is not used by every single service provider, so some service providers aren’t even a part of this database,” Joint Housing and Shelter Strategist Sarai Johnson told KLCC. 

Johnson’s position as Joint Housing and Shelter Strategist is one of the TAC Report’s recommendations. She was hired in February of this year.

 

Johnson said the number of homeless in the county is likely higher than the By-Name list suggests and that she’s trying to get more providers to participate in the By-Name count.

It also remains unclear how, or if COVID-19 has shifted behaviours among those accessing services, whether they’re using more services as a result of the pandemic, or if they’re using them less.

In July, Johnson recommended expanding shelter capacity and adding more permanent supportive housing to adjust for new data. This included upping the number of shelter beds to 475 and adding six more units of permanent supportive housing. She also suggested adding a new suggestion to include 350 alternative shelter beds.

 

Neither the City of Eugene or Lane County have officially adopted her recommendations, but based on an Oct. 14 joint meeting between the two governing bodies it’s likely the TAC Report will need some adjusting.

“I just think the situation has altered over time and I don’t think our plan is sufficient to the need,” said Eugene City Councilor Mike Clark after Johnson gave an update. 

At the meeting Johnson gave another TAC report update and presented the projected cost of implementing the report. She estimated it would cost more than $34 million, and currently there’s a gap of about $13 million in funding. Though Johnson stated these figures aren’t set in stone.

“I would encourage us to continue on with what we’re doing at the moment,” Clark said. “But to give thought to the fact that we may want to consider from a 30,000 foot level looking at this anew, and looking at it, maybe not differently, but with additional effort.”

Last year, officials explored the possibility of building a tent-like sprung structure to serve as the low-barrier shelter and navigation center. Also under consideration was using a parcel near Highway 99 for the shelter. But a recent emergency purchase could be the solution.

On March 30, at the beginning of the pandemic, the county purchased a former veterans clinic on River Avenue in North Eugene. The move was part of the COVID-19 emergency response to offer the unhoused a place to isolate while awaiting test results, and recover if they became sick.

“We’re using [the building] for that now and expect to be using it for at least for this fiscal year, which ends in June, and I’m not sure how much beyond that...but it will continue to be used [as a recovery center] for as long as it’s needed,” Johnson told KLCC.

The facility was purchased for $1.8 million and is currently able to house up to 42 beds with space for physical distancing. At the time it was pitched, the building was said to have been able to house up to 100 beds, but pandemic protocols decreased that number.

Seemingly unaffected by the pandemic, is the ongoing construction of the Commons on MLK. The project adds 51 units of permanent supportive housing to Lane County. With six of the units being ADA compliant.

Despite a two-week pause when wildfires hit Oregon, Homes for Good Executive Director Jacob Fox said it is on-track without delay to be completed in December.

 

“Our construction company, which is Meilie Construction, jumped right in and took extra safety precautions so the workers were protected during the pandemic,” said.

The project would get the city and county closer to meeting their five-year goal of adding 350 units of permanent supportive housing. Two other projects by Homes for Good are also expected to begin later this year. 

“51 units isn’t going to address the totality of people experiencing homelessness in our community, but we’ve developed a move on strategy for the building,” he said.

The idea is to have chronically homeless individuals eventually “graduate” out of permanent supportive housing and into other affordable housing Fox said. 

Still unclear is how the recent wildfire up the McKenzie River will affect homelessness in the county, and the possible reshaping of the TAC report. The Holiday Farm Fire burned more than 173,000 acres and with it, 431 residences. 

People affected by the fires are expected to receive aid from FEMA, and have been encouraged to file insurance claims for help recover. But, Johnson told councilors and commissioners the fire has already increased the number of unsheltered people.

“A lot whom [had] alternative living arrangements such as you know a 5th wheel on somebody else’s land or some kind of casual lease and things like that...this is certainly something that I think needs to be on our radar and that we’re paying attention to,” Johnson said.

The fire also brought up concerns about how to prevent additional people from becoming homeless, whether it’s because of the fire, or the pandemic. Specifically, officials said they wanted to see more permanent supportive housing and affordable housing options.

“If we want folks not to become homeless we’ve got to deal with our housing shortage in this area. And we now have 400 families that have been displaced by the fires adding to that lack of demand, so affordable housing in all policies,” said commissioner Jay Bozievich.

About three quarters into the remainder of a tumultuous year, the city and county are now focusing its efforts on the upcoming winter season. Both the pandemic and the wildfire have exacerbated the need. 

COVID-19 decreased the number of beds available for shelters and has made finding sites for non-congregate shelter difficult. 

St. Vincent de Paul, which usually offers shelter through the Egan Warming Centers, is still unsure how they’ll help the unhoused this upcoming season. They typically serve up to 500 individuals on freezing nights.

Though every year they scramble to find site locations, they've usually been able to use religious facilities. That won’t be the case this year.

“People who use those facilities on a regular basis, the members of the congregation, the members at Temple Beth Israel, the people who come in for meetings in those spaces, it would compromise their safety to have all of [the unhoused] inside their facility,” said Egan Winter Strategies Coordinator Tim Black. “That’s a big ask.”

To add to the scramble, Black said their volunteer pool consists of older individuals who are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. But he’s hopeful they’ll be able to find other volunteers. 

“What we really need from the community is help finding those larger spaces that could be available to us, since we’re not going to have access to all of our other sites, that’s the number one thing,” Black said.

In Johnson’s Winter Strategies plan, she’s looking to acquire between 500-1,000 emergency shelter beds in an effort to rely less on the Egan Warming Centers this season. 

As of Oct. 14, she told officials they have 240 with 75 of those coming from the city of Eugene’s recent addition of 5 Rest Stop sites. Johnson pointed out some of the beds could be available post-pandemic. Other options include renting hotels and, or motels for the most at-risk. 

 

While the county and city seem to be on track in following parts of the TAC Report, councilors and commissioners seemed to agree that the report needs to be reassessed, and that they’ll need a way to fund it.

Some solutions discussed included seeking out private funding and finding foundations who can help bridge the gap in funding.

Eugene City Councilor Chris Pryor suggested creating a bond. As an example, he referenced  the recent passing of a $250 million Metro ballot measure that funds supportive housing services in Portland. He added a bond could help fund housing projects here.

 

“We’re going to have to put some serious money, whether it’s in the form of cash or in the form of incentives or in the form of whatever it needs to be to help partners to get it built…if we don’t put our part in it, it doesn’t happen,” Pryor said.

Before the meeting concluded, Commissioner Heather Buch told councilors and commissioners they need to come up with solutions, even if recent events make it difficult.

“Had COVID not hit, and wildfires hit and all these other things come along I would think the progress that we’re making was quite hopeful, and it is quite hopeful, except for now I think we’re just trying to tread water with the rooms and the beds that we’ve lost because of those things,” said Commissioner Heather Buch. 

“So we’re just trying to keep up at this moment with where we were respectively last. So it begs the question for me, are we thinking big enough?”

Copyright 2020 KLCC