Bills address homelessness crisis in state

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek last week signed two legislative bills allocating $200 million to address Oregon’s homelessness crisis.

House Bill 2001 and House Bill 5019 passed both chambers of the Legislature with full Democratic and some Republican support. They comprise a $200 million package, including more than $112 million to expand the state’s shelter capacity by 700 beds and help about 1,650 people move into permanent homes within the next year. The package also includes $25 million for homeless youth and more than $33 million for rent assistance to help nearly 9,000 families stay in their homes.

Within 24 hours of taking office in January, Kotek declared a homeless state of emergency and created a state council to spur the building of thousands of extra homes a year. She asked the state Legislature to take quick action rather than wait until the end of the session in late June to approve funding.

At least 18,000 people in Oregon are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many struggle with mental health problems and addiction. In 2021, the Legislature approved an historic $1.3 billion to address that crisis, but the money has been slow to roll out, with Kotek calling for millions more for behavioral health this session.

Besides people on the streets, thousands more struggle to pay rent or keep up with mortgage payments. The state needs to build 550,000 new homes over the next two decades after years of building fewer homes than needed for the state’s growing population, according to the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

Kotek acknowledged that the package won’t solve the crisis.

“This crisis didn’t appear overnight, nor will it be solved overnight,” she said.

Locally, Linn County commissioners Roger Nyquist, Sherrie Sprenger and Will Tucker on March 12 ratified a resolution declaring a state of emergency due to homelessness.

They had previously submitted the declaration to Gov. Kotek, who approved their request on March 20.

The goal is to make Linn County eligible for funding as the state moves closer to allocating millions of dollars for homeless programs. Gov. Kotek has asked that the Legislature allocate $130 million, but legislators went beyond that request and approved $200 million.

Although all three commissioners signed onto the declaration, Commissioner Nyquist was skeptical that Kotek’s plans would have any significant effect on the state’s homeless situation, blaming Oregon’s lack of leadership on the issue for continued problems.

Nyquist said the state has legalized Class I drugs, downgrading possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors; has approved such complicated land use laws that building affordable housing is nearly impossible; and has not provided enough beds to house Oregon’s mentally ill and get them off the streets.

Sprenger called the declaration the “tool we need to be able to move forward and potentially access funds.”

Tucker said rural counties should have been included in Gov. Kotek’s original declaration months ago. He pointed out that on a per capita basis, Linn County has a higher proportion of homelessness than Multnomah County.

In a letter to the commissioners, Kotek wrote, “First and foremost, I want to applaud you for the hard work you are doing in Linn County to respond to the homelessness crisis your community is experiencing. I want to assure you that I am absolutely committed to addressing homelessness in every corner of our state. It will take ongoing, active partnerships with leaders across Oregon to address the homelessness crisis and you have my commitment to be that partner.”

The governor also noted that unsheltered homelessness in Linn County increased by 104% between 2017 and 2022.

Linn County’s declaration may also help the city of Sweet Home, which approved its own emergency homeless declaration and recently opened an encampment on property donated to the city by Linn County.

The $200 million approved by the Legislature toward Kotek’s homelessness plan includes:

♦ $55.4 million for landlord incentives and mass leasing programs;

♦ $33.6 million for rent assistance;

♦ $27 million for rural counties;

♦ $25 million for homeless youth;

♦ $23.8 million for shelter beds;

♦ $20 million to produce modular affordable housing;

♦ $5 million for tribes;

♦ $5 million for culturally responsive organizations;

♦ $5 million to house farmworkers;

♦ $3 million revolving loan fund; and

♦ $2 million for trash pick-up.

Both Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle reporter, and Alex Paul, Linn County Communications Office, contributed to this report.