From Homelessness to Hope

There are 1,192 homeless people in Yamhill County, according to a head count taken in January. However, that total is off by at least one.
Elizabeth Wooten recently moved into a new apartment. “I’m telling you, it feels so good to have a place again,” she said.
Wooten went from being a community college graduate with a career plan to a homeless statistic, when a divorce and a disabling medical condition left her living in the back of a truck.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I never thought I would be homeless. Never.
“Yet there I was. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”
Jeff Sargent fears she might be right.
The executive director of the Yamhill Community Action Partnership, Sargent said Portland attracts a lot of attention for its affordable housing crisis, but that crisis is quietly trickling through the rest of the state as well, reaching the communities of Yamhill County along the way. “Everyone recognizes it as a problem,” he said.
Wooten learned that the hard way when supra-ventricular tachycardia, an abnormal heart rhythm caused by improper cardiac electrical activity, rendered her unable to work. The chronic condition qualified her for disability payments through Social Security, but the $733 she received didn’t come close to covering the rent and living expenses in McMinnville.
Her story is common, said Sargent, more common than state and federal officials realize.
January’s head count was conducted by YCAP as mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count is required every other year. Although this was an off year, YCAP officials decided to do the count anyway, to make sure they had up-to-date numbers.
Their numbers were higher than the ones reported by the federal government. While YCAP counted 1,192 homeless people in Yamhill County, HUD put the figure at 720.
“There are numbers we collect that we use locally to drive our programs,” Sargent said. “HUD and state numbers differ. The reason they’re different is that HUD doesn’t consider people who are precariously housed as part of the head count.
“’Precariously housed’ means people who are couch surfing or staying with friends — people who are doubled up. HUD has changed its definition of homeless to exclude that element.
YCAP’s 1,192 total includes 35 veterans and 175 children. “That’s an extremely unfortunate number,” Sargent said.
The numbers help YCAP tailor its services, Sargent said.
“We are continuing to emphasize what’s called rapid re-housing,” he said. “We know that the longer people are without stable housing, the harder it is for them to get back in. We also want to avoid people becoming homeless in the first place.”
Wooten said she thought she was doomed to years of going homeless. She was on the waiting list for Section 8 housing through the Yamhill County Housing Authority, and heard that could mean years in limbo.
Meanwhile, she found temporary shelter at the Amity Assembly of God Church.
Then she caught a break.
A friend who works at the Housing Authority clued her into a program offered by the Veterans Administration. Although Wooten isn’t a veteran, she fit the program’s extremely specific criteria.
By sheer coincidence, a parishioner at the church referred her to the exact same program.
“I took it as a sign,” Wooten said. “I felt like God was leading me in that direction.”
She and her service dog, a 6-year-old black Labrador named Chief, moved into a new apartment this month. “I can’t live without my baby,” she said as Chief nuzzled up to her.
The move also enabled her to get her belongings out of storage. And it was more than the tiny apartment could accommodate.
“I’ve been going through and figuring out what I don’t absolutely need,” said Wooten. “I’m donating what I can to some of the homeless people I met while I was out there myself. I was able to give someone a camping backpack.”
Her rent is $107 per month. Section 8 pays the rest.
However, Wooten said that doesn’t mean she has a lot of money.
“It’s still going to be a hardship,” said. “You still have your expenses. You still need groceries. I still go to the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas every now and then.”
She also recently spent two days in the hospital because of her heart condition. Although things have gotten better for her, she said she teeters on the brink of being “precariously housed.”
Yamhill County’s homeless numbers are going up.
Last year’s final head count put the number of homeless people in the county at 901. Even that number was jarring, as it gave Yamhill County a higher homeless percentage than Portland, though that could be a function of better counting.
Having 901 homeless people means 0.9 percent of Yamhill County’s roughly 100,000 residents are homeless. Of the roughly 600,000 people in Portland, last year’s head count there identified 0.74 percent of them as homeless.
Sargent said he is not sure the county is seeing more homeless people. This year’s count may just be more accurate, he said.
“We think that last year’s number is not as accurate as this year’s, because there were some anomalies in the count last year on the state level,” he added.
The totals for 2012 and 2014 were closer to this year’s count, Sargent said.
“The count this year was aided by us having more drop-in sites,” he said. “We made sure we added sites in every community.”
YCAP officials have been working with local landlords to help homeless and low-income people secure housing. The agency hosted a luncheon for landlords April 21 to give landlords an overview of YCAP services and press the case that its clients are often in structured programs that make them reliable tenants.
One such program is Supportive Services for Veteran Families.
The veterans program just finished its first year. It’s funded by grants from the Veterans Administration that come to YCAP through the Community Action Partnership of Oregon. All veterans are eligible unless they were dishonorably discharged.
Sargent said YCAP has been able to help 25 veterans through the program in the past 12 months.
They must be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. They must also be willing to work on a solution to the problems that led to their situation and meet low-income eligibility guidelines. Once those criteria are met, emergency help is available for such things as rent, utilities, security deposits and moving expenses.
“We’ve been very aggressive in our outreach to veterans,” Sargent said.
Being homeless can be bitterly discouraging, said Wooten, but the future is notoriously hard to predict, and no one knows enough about it to be discouraged. “The help is there for people who actually want to have it,” she said.

By Tom Henderson • News-Register Staff Writer • May 13, 2016