Clatsop County Homeless Count Rises Above Last Year

George Sabol and Alan Evans want to change the perception of what it means to be homeless in Clatsop County.

Sabol, the executive director of Clatsop Community Action, and Evans, executive director of Helping Hands in Seaside, are among those trying to reinforce the increasingly stressed safety net that helps those in poverty in Clatsop County.

“There is a misperception in our community that transients are the homeless people,” Sabol said. “People do not understand. (The homeless are) working stiffs, and they’re having a hard time making ends meet, and some of them end up living with mom and dad because they just didn’t pay the rent for the last three months. People that are working are going out getting some food from the food bank.”

The biggest problem Sabol and Evans face is that those in Clatsop County “don’t believe that we have a homeless issue,” Evans said.

“They want to count it as transients that come from other places and everything else, when the truth is there’s a huge homeless population that lives in our community,” he added.

Sabol’s organization, Clatsop Community Action, was founded in 1984 and serves to provide housing, food and other basic needs for the county’s must vulnerable residents. The organization runs the county’s regional food bank and supports social services agencies.

Counting the homeless

Every year during the last week of January, CCA also performs a required yearly homeless count. Viviana Matthews and other CCA project managers fan out into the community and check the parks, known homeless camps and shelters, and talk with the school district officials to find all of those legally considered homeless. CCA also uses its annual Project Homeless Connect event at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center to find people.

The state of Oregon defines homelessness “as being without a decent, safe, stable, and permanent place to live that is fit for human habitation.”

This year, CCA found 1,038 people that fit that description in Clatsop County – an increase of 398 over the previous year.

In Seaside, that number is 340 individuals. Evans called this a “snapshot.” If the number of people he sees is any indication, those who are homeless in Clatsop County total many more than 1,038, he said.

Sabol attributes the rise to better tracking, but also to an economy that continues to be difficult where people are losing unemployment insurance, people no longer on the rolls, people who he calls “invisible.”

“Those invisible people we serve are the ones that got unemployment for up to three years. Well now, they’re not even getting that,” Sabol said. “What do they do? They still don’t have jobs.”

Sabol said they are using the services provided by CCA, like the food bank and emergency supply closet, but the unemployed are also finding themselves to be homeless, as well. 0

“They’re everywhere,” Matthews said. “Some of them are in transitional housing, some of them are in shelters, some of them are staying with relatives, some of them are teenagers, couch surfers. Some of them are in vehicles.”

They are in campsites under bridges, in rural parts of the county and even in Seaside, Sabol said.

Helping Hands

In Seaside, Evans and his staff at Helping Hands are a force in providing emergency assistance and helping the homeless successfully re-enter society.

Helping Hands’ re-entry program is the main mission of the organization. In Clatsop County, the organization serves 40 individuals.

“I don’t meet a whole lot of people who don’t want to change their lives,” Evans said.

The goal of the program is to identify why individual people have become homeless and to tailor a specific course to help them re-enter society over a period of time. Evans said when people enter the program, they do an extensive interview and help people find the tools they need – be it education, chemical abuse intervention or credit help.

In the past, the program used to just provide people with transitional housing, but Evans said those at Helping Hands realized that was not going to solve the problem.

“We have to go back to that basic stuff to change that world we live in,” Evans said. “If we don’t address the story, we’re addressing the circumstance, and when we’re doing that, we’re doing it wrong.”

He added that providing someone a roof or a meal helps them in that moment, but if Helping Hands can provide people a “toolbox” of skills and assistance, the rate of success will be much higher.

Shelter need help

The other big piece of work Helping Hands does is the emergency shelter, which Evans said is quickly growing.

Helping Hands’ shelter is the only emergency shelter in the county that provides help to people without requiring them to fulfill other goals.

“The other agencies are targeted,” Sabol said. “Women’s Resource helps people dealing with domestic violence. Restoration House will take people that are in drug and alcohol rehab and sex offenders – it’s a great service for our community, but it’s restricted to who they service.

“Astoria Rescue Mission, they’ll take men and women in separate facilities but they say you have to accept Jesus Christ within 48 hours …. It’s amazing how we get people in here who say, ‘Nope won’t do that.’”

“We have different places, but the only one that doesn’t say do they have a drug problem, do they have an alcohol problem, is it a family, is it domestic violence (is Helping Hands). They’ll take anybody in,” Sabol said.

The one restriction Helping Hands does have, Evans said, is that the emergency shelter will not admit sex offenders or people with a history of sex offenses. The restriction is necessary because the emergency shelter includes families.

But because the shelter brings in so many people, its $35,000 annual budget isn’t going as far as it should, Evans said.

An average of 21 people per day seek help from the shelter. At a cost of $5 per person per day, the expenses are taking their toll on the organization. Earlier this year, before some community members stepped in, the shelter was operating with debt. It is not any longer, but the financial situation is precarious, Evans said.

Seaside City Councilor Jay Barber, himself an experienced nonprofit executive and former president of Warner Pacific College in Portland, is helping Evans and Helping Hands spin off the emergency shelter as a separate nonprofit organization.

“(The emergency shelter has) become a drain on the Helping Hands program,” Barber said. “Right now, it’s hand to mouth.”

The shelter has enough money to continue operating through June 1, he said.

It will take months for the shelter’s new board of directors to create a separate 501c(3), he added.

In the meantime, Evans and Barber said the ultimate goal for the program’s financial security is to secure involvement from the organizations that refer clients to it as well as the community.

“We’re barely making it,” Evans said. “We’re always struggling. We’re always a week away from the shelter shutting down …. Our goal is to become sustainable through an adopt-a-bed program. If we get the right people on board who see the importance of it, then I think we stand a chance.”

Evans said if organizations like his and CCA can change that perception of what it means to be homeless, if they can get the community to understand that homelessness in the Clatsop County is a real thing, they can create that needed sustainability.

“You always hear that it takes a community to raise a child, there’s truth to that,” Evans said.

This story originally appeared in Seaside Signal.

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