A TAC Progress Report

Eugene, Lane County discuss addressing homelessness and where they are on the five-year plan

At an Oct. 14 joint work session with the Lane County Board of County Commissioners and Eugene City Council, elected officials discussed homelessness and progress on fulfilling the Technical Assistance Collaborative report. The city-county joint housing strategist (aka homeless czar), Sarai Johnson, provided an overview of where the county and city are in following the TAC report. As temperatures drop, Johnson also gave an update to winter strategies, saying they haven’t found enough beds but will keep looking.

Lane County and Eugene are also short on money to fully fund the TAC report, so some elected officials wondered if a bond measure is an appropriate path. The meeting had some tensions between the city and county officials as one commissioner said the meeting wasn’t conducive to talking in-depth on homelessness and another said the meeting wrongfully left out accomplishments by the city of Springfield to address homelessness. 

The TAC’s Yellow Brick Road

The city and county are in year two of the five-year plan set forth by the TAC report. Back in 2018, the two governments paid a collective $84,000 for a Boston-based nonprofit to develop a path to address homelessness in Lane County. 

Johnson said there have been setbacks due to COVID-19, like losing 194 beds. But since the City Council approved five new rest stops, there will be 75 more beds available short term and 100 long term. 

The governments still haven’t closed the gap of fully funding the five-year plan. 

Johnson said local governments face a $13 million gap to meet the TAC’s recommendations over the next five years. Seven items of the TAC recommendations are not fully funded and two have full funding. 

Johnson said the local governments’ investments in outreach is 55 percent; there is a gap of $835,000. This includes $675,000 for hiring 5.25 full-time-equivalent (FTE) outreach workers. 

Another strategy is landlord engagement through incentives and having a fund that would cover damages or rent loss, according to the TAC report. Only 12 percent of this is covered right now and needs $710,000 more to be fully funded.

One of the fully funded programs is the diversion and rapid resolution recommendation. TAC recommended hiring six FTE diversion specialists and a fund. Johnson said this will cost $1.2 million and is fully funded. The other fully funded program is program management and implementation (which includes the homeless czar position). 

The TAC report recommends building a navigation center that doubles as a low barrier shelter. The building would have 75 beds and help people find the next steps and where to find housing and other resources, according to the city. 

Mayor Lucy Vinis said the navigation center faces an unforeseeable delay because of the pandemic. The navigation center would have a service network for the unhoused, so Vinis said the city and county should invest in building the service network now. 

The cost to build the navigation center is $16.3 million, and the county and city need to find $3.1 million to cover the center’s operations. The two governments plan to discuss using the River Avenue building for a navigation center in February 2021. The county purchased the building earlier this year to be a COVID-19 respite center

Breaking down service delivery by city, Johnson said 70 percent of services will be focused in Eugene, 10 percent in Springfield, 5 percent in areas such as Creswell and Florence and the rest spread throughout the rest of the county. She added that those numbers are based on which cities have the most homeless, which is based on service providers and doesn’t count people who don’t access those organizations — so there’s likely more unhoused people who aren’t counted. 

Winter is Coming

As winter approaches, Johnson said the goal is to have 500 to 1,000 non-congregate beds to cut back on the reliance on Egan Warming Centers. She added that the most likely scenario for winter would be about 100 hotel/motel beds, 75 city rest stop beds, 50 shelter beds and 12 to 14 beds in Cottage Grove. These winter beds will close in March 2021. 

“That is a tall order, but we have a lot of determined people working on it and community partners taking proactive action,” she said about the need to add 260 to 760 beds. 

Johnson later said the county would take the role of delivering homeless services and cities would host shelter locations.

She said that she’s still going to try and fill the needed gap of 260 to 760 beds throughout the cold season. “I’d say 500 is what I’d be OK about because the dangers of COVID-19 with the cold is a pretty bad recipe and I’d like for us to make sure people have a safe place to sleep at night,” she added. 

Vinis said those beds are in addition to what’s currently available — like the Dusk to Dawn program, which has a site at Highway 99 with 125 beds. 

Councilor Emily Semple replied that after all of her years of trying to find shelters in certain neighborhoods but having NIMBYism get in the way, she’s having a hard time thinking the city and county will find a place to put that many beds so quickly. 

But Johnson said not all of those beds would be in Eugene because the city has the rest stops, and there are other bed locations outside of the metro area. Eugene City Council OK’d rest stops in September. 

Although finding sites is the No. 1 challenge she faces, Johnson said the community is now more supportive of sheltering the homeless. 

“Neighborhood associations have started saying, ‘We want to be a part of the solution’ because illegal camping and people not having a place to go is impacting neighborhoods right now,” she said. “They’d rather see someone have a place to sleep and mitigate the challenges that we’re seeing.”

One type of non-congregate housing that could be used depending on site availability is a shelter made by a social purpose company called Pallet, Johnson said. She said the unit takes 30 minutes to set up and could be a short-term solution for winter, and if there’s a partnership with Square One Village, it could be long term. 

Commissioner Pat Farr said Pallet shelters could be used for rural towns like Cottage Grove or neighborhoods in the metro area. 

Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature passed a law that allows nongovernmental organizations to be a super site. These organizations can be a homeless service provider or religious group with experience in providing shelter. 

Vinis said the city received eight applications for super sites. Depending on city approval, this could lead to more available beds. A city official said the applications are in a review period and will take some time for a ruling. 

Show Me the Money

Since local governments like the city of Springfield have worked on increasing accessory dwelling units and that city is expected to approve camping at industrial and church parking lots, Springfield’s County Commissioner Joe Berney asked twice if available beds are because of Johnson’s multi-agency collaboration or if those beds would have become available without her. 

Eugene City Manager Sarah Medary responded that some things might have happened without assistance from the recently formed multi-agency, but it wouldn’t have been “as big or as quick.” 

But Berney said his question wasn’t answered and that he wouldn’t ask it three times. 

Councilor Mike Clark questioned the five-year program set forth by the TAC report and whether it’s wise to spend $30 million on it when it would only provide less than half the need for beds. He said the following the TAC report has yielded about 10 percent of the beds needed and in five years that would grow to 35 to 40 percent with the need to locate $13 million, he said. 

“I don’t mean to throw cold water. I don’t know if our plan is sufficient to the need,” Clark said, adding that it may be time to reassess how the city and county will tackle giving the unhoused shelter. “It’s an awful lot of money to accomplish that percentage of the need. 

The largest financial gap the city and county face is covering the costs of permanent supportive housing. They need $5.95 million, $4.35 million of which is for 365 housing units. 

To tackle the $13 million financial gap, Councilor Alan Zelenka said the local governments should consider working together to put forth a bond measure to voters that would cover the gap amount and possibly wedge in some amount to tackle climate change, too. 

Zelenka said the community is crying out for funding to curb greenhouse gas emissions and address homelessness. “We need to be creative with how we look at that and expand our horizons about funding,” he said. 

He said that although a change in the White House could lead to new funding, the solution could be more money at the local level — like a bond measure. He added that maybe after Lane County commissioners are done with their climate action committee the two governments could team up and ask voters for a bond. 

Outgoing commissioner Pete Sorenson said he’d support a bond, too. Semple said she wouldn’t support a bond, but she’s heard from people who say they want to put money on the table to address homelessness. 

Lane County wouldn’t be the first to pursue a bond measure on homelessness in Oregon. Multnomah County residents passed a bond measure back in May that would put a one percent marginal tax on singles making $150,000 a year, couples making more than $200,000 a year and a one percent tax on large businesses. The Tri-County tax could generate $250 million a year. The bond measure took years of working with businesses, nonprofits and making government work better.

Johnson said there are also private funds that could be leveraged with public money. “Working with some of our key foundations around the state could be beneficial to our community,” she said. “The way we’d approach that is working with multiple foundations on a county-wide investment on adding those first few rungs of the housing ladder.”

Clark said that as winter moves on, we’ll see new people experiencing homelessness because of the economic recession and the large number of people who can’t afford housing. “Preventing folks from becoming homeless is going to be a bigger goal as we get in the late winter,” he said. 

The city has $15 million in its reserves, he added. “We should be using that on the navigation center that is sufficient in size and that addresses the issue and has the capacity to provide several hundred shelter beds,” he said. “It’s the best use of that money.” 

Clark also mentioned that a bond measure would be useful that would provide money for people to stay in housing. Loan recipients would pay it back over years and would help keep more people from ending up on the streets. 

But the work session format itself was criticized by county commissioners Berney and Farr, saying it doesn’t offer equitable time for all to speak and dive in deep on possible solutions. 

Berney added that the meeting left out a lot of the contributions that the city of Springfield has made to addressing to homelessness. 

“And any discussion of a bond, please have it be a little more strategic and let’s talk about how we can use our willingness to perhaps structure our bond as an incentive to get some of those national foundation dollars here and start moving aggressively in that manner,” Berney said.

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