The Washington County Supportive Housing Services program launched in July 2021, connecting an initial 305 formerly houseless households to homes and apartments in its first year, according to a presentation by county officials to the Forest Grove City Council.
In May 2020, voters approved new income taxes on high earners and business profits to be distributed to housing and homeless services across the Metro region in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties.
"We are truly building a new system of care with this new regional fund," Washington County Supportive Housing Services program manager Jes Larsen said. "Prior to the voter-approved measure, Washington County received approximately $4.5 million from the federal government to invest in homeless services, and with this new funding, that budget will be increased to approximately $75 million annually.
"We are truly scaling to an incredible extent of what we are able to offer by way of housing services, outreach services and shelter services, all made possible through this measure."
In 2022, Washington County launched new housing case management services to help residents find and retain housing, as well as a regional long-term rent assistance under the Supportive Housing Services program.
Over the past year, the county had hoped to place 500 formerly homeless households into permanent and supportive housing. As usual with housing and homelessness targets — in Washington County, throughout the Metro region and statewide, officials and advocates have long been struggling to get a handle on the related issues — it fell short, placing 305.
"We adjusted mid-year to (a target of) 300, because six months in, we realized, 'Oh wow, this is going to take real foundation-building,' and we needed to adjust to put that capacity and strong foundation in place so this can be a decades-long effort," program supervisor Jessica Adams said. "Over time, our plan is to grow from new households placed to more housing retention."
In 2022-23, the county hopes to have 1,000 supported households, and 1,500 by 2023-24.
Instead of new county employees, the program largely funnels funding and training to a network of nonprofit organizations, including the Forest Grove Foundation, Open Door HousingWorks and Centro Cultural de Washington County, for services including homeless outreach, behavioral health support and housing application assistance.
"The goal is to know the landlords who have available apartments, understand the barriers, criminal barriers, credit history or landlord history, needing an ID and getting an ID — all those steps — getting ready what they need to apply for an apartment," Larsen said.
Forest Grove Foundation director Shawn Cardwell said his organization focuses on outreach, which includes both emergency survival supplies and connecting homeless individuals with case managers who facilitate the process to look for permanent housing.
In recent years, the Forest Grove Foundation staff has grown from two part-time housing and outreach workers to three full-time and two part-time workers, as well as a program manager.
"The new funding allowed us to keep our outreach workers, and our program became more robust with a more stable funding source, which is all great news," Cardwell said. "We were always doing outreach and coordinating around the county, and now outreach has been brought into the Supportive Housing Services system, which defines that we can get people connected into the process. There was always collaboration, but (Supportive Housing Services) is a dominant force in the system now."
Larsen said the county added 100 shelter beds in the past year, including 20 at Casa Amparo in Forest Grove. Western Washington County still lacks emergency shelter capacity in winter months — a church-run program was discontinued during the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn't resumed — meaning Hillsboro is the closest place for many residents living on the streets or in the woods to find shelter when temperatures drop below freezing.
"The reality is we see very few people on this side of the county go to those shelters, even when it drops below freezing. One (obstacle) is travel. One is living in a camp here and leaving all their stuff behind, and that creates a risk about people taking that spot," Cardwell said. "It's also just a long way from home, and we don't have inclement weather services in Forest Grove."
Toward the end of the presentation, Forest Grove City Councilor Mariana Valenzuela asked county officials if they're hopeful the number of homeless residents will decrease under the new program.
"I worked for Community Action in Washington County for a very long time and started in the shelter as a young college student, and I remember being really floored by the number of people we turned away just because we didn't have any services to offer," Adams said. "Here we are, a year in, and there are shelters being built and people being housed."