As in many large American cities, the homeless — advocates prefer to call them “houseless” — provide a jarring counterpoint to a Portland that otherwise sees itself as a self-assured center of wealth, health and progressive politics.
But every other corner of Oregon has its version of the social ills that sicken the Rose City.
Housing prices and rental costs have jumped beyond the reach of wages. Scores of jobs go unfilled, in some cases because prospective workers can’t afford to move. Rural towns find themselves hosting secretive campers in their parks or in surrounding public forests. Sparsely populated counties can’t offer the mental health and other services needed to aid so many broken people, the ones who talk a mile a minute about how they’re going to get something going real soon, but who seemingly aren’t going anywhere.
Rural Oregon doesn’t get a pass this time. The economic vines grow and twist together out there, too.
In Burns, 280 miles southeast of Portland, Dan Brown saw it firsthand. He’d been police chief in Winslow, Ariz., retired, then realized he missed people and ought to put his public administration degree to use. He was hired in January 2021 to be city administrator in Burns, the Harney County seat.
Arriving in Burns, Brown couldn’t find a place to live. He spent his first two and half months on the job living in his travel trailer at an RV park. He eventually bought a place for $175,000 that was in the middle of being remodeled. Brown moved in, is finishing the remodeling, and estimates he could sell it for $100,000 more than he paid for it. Not that he intends to, he said.
“Housing out here is selling for record prices,” Brown said. “Anything that hits the market goes.”
And about here is where the economic vines twist. In much of rural Oregon, the brambles of housing, workforce, wages, health care, education, transportation, private investment, community history and government policy crisscross each other.
Brown believes contractors would rather work in the booming Bend area, where they can build subdivisions and make even more money. Sending a crew and equipment to Burns for smaller jobs would be less profitable, Brown figures.
In the meantime, he has trouble hiring police officers and filling other city jobs because housing is tight and increasingly expensive. He said the local hospital and school district have the same problem.
So does Jen Vega, manager of the McDonald’s in neighboring Hines. Vega said she would hire 15 people if she could, but no one wants to work. She can’t open her lobby because she doesn’t have the staff. Drive up service only, and sometimes customers cuss at the kids she’s got working for her. Some shifts there’s just three of them running the whole thing. The starting pay is $13.75, Vega said.
Here come the economic and social vines.
Many people believe there are so many unheeded “We’re Hiring” signs out there because federal unemployment benefits were increased and extended, with the enhancement ending Sept. 6. That was lucky for a lot of people who needed help when COVID-19 hit and they lost their jobs. That helped a lot of people, it’s fair to say. But for some people it provided breathing room to sit back and say, wait, let’s reset this whole thing. Why should I go back, for that pay, and pay child care again? And commute, when the car is broken down anyway and the rent is taking a jump?
And you intertwine with stories such as Brown’s, the Burns city administrator who lived in his trailer for the first couple months he was on the job.
Burns is one of those Oregon timber towns that cracked open and fell down. But Brown talks about establishing an urban renewal district to focus redevelopment, and updating broadband availability. He said Burns has a great water system. “We have the ability to recover the growth we lost in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Brown said.
But man, it is tangled.
In a span of four or five years, Brown said, houses that once sold for $45,000 jumped up to $200,000 or $225,000. In a complaint common to many parts of rural Oregon, he said some of the competition comes from wealthier people who live elsewhere and easily out-bid the locals for property. They are buying second homes that they live in only part-time or rent to vacationers. The practice takes long-term rentals out of circulation and reduces the number of homes available to buy.
“We’re pricing people out who used to be able to afford to buy or rent,” Brown said. “We don’t have the housing, period, to sustain a workforce.”
Brown estimates the Burns-Hines area has 40 to 50 homeless people. Some live in their vehicles, some live in the elements. Burns has about 2,800 people and Hines has about 1,400. The whole county has about 8,000. So, you notice. Most people are fairly tolerant of the homeless and want to help out if they can, he said, but the county is not well off and isn’t flush with services.
Brown said Burns needs more housing. That’s pretty basic, and he said Burns, Hines, the county and the Burns Paiute Tribe are on the same sheet of music about that.
He said some people in the area certainly support the idea of more housing, but don’t want it to include low-income housing.
Brown said that thinking is wrong. More and more people want to live out there, he said, and others can’t afford to leave.
“You have to have housing for every person who wants to live in your community,” he said.
Really broken people
Out in Vernonia, about 45 miles west by northwest of Portland as the Columbia River bends, City Administrator Josette Mitchell thinks for a minute and says the town has four to six homeless people.
She taught one of them in fifth grade. Everybody knows him, she said. And if he uses a city park barbecue pit for his warming fire, sitting there with his morning coffee that he gets from somewhere, Mitchell said, that’s all right. “We’re not bugging him,” she said.
Mitchell has lived in Vernonia 22 years and her husband is from there. In addition to teaching, Mitchell served on the city council and as mayor. She stepped down as mayor in 2016 to take the paid position of city administrator. She’d done the job unpaid a couple times when the town was between administrators, which happens a lot in smaller communities.
Mitchell said her former student probably stays in Vernonia because it’s safer than a place like Portland.
“Part of the problem in bigger cities is you’re anonymous,” she said. “Part of why he’s still here is it’s a safe place. We all know who he is.”
Mitchell said there are a lot of “really broken people” out there. Broken by trauma, bad breaks, poor decisions, you name it.
“And how we treat them really says something about us,” she said. “Judging a book by the cover happens to them a lot.”
One of the four to six homeless is a woman who at one point had a huge dog and who rummages through trash cans, looking for returnables. As long as she puts the trash back in, which she does, Mitchell doesn’t have a problem with her sustaining herself that way. A guy in town lets her camp on his property, so she’s in a stable spot.
Mitchell said she noticed the way the woman shoved the plastic garbage containers back into the wooden structures that hold them in place. She told her public works guy that he ought to put a protective, L-shaped metal strip at the base of the wood structures, so they wouldn’t get so scuffed up from the woman shoving the cans back in place.
The public works guy was cracking up, she said, and asked her if that was her big fix. She laughed too, and said it was.
Because what are you going to do? My goodness. .....copy break...
The issues intertwine. A 2016 report by Oregon State University’s Rural Studies Program said housing costs sap household budgets, and the cost burden is a “very likely” influence on how much some people worry about feeding themselves.
“The rapid rise of rental costs in the Portland Metro area and in other places in Oregon (included in a USDA study) could be a driving force in the jump in food insecurity.”
The Oregon Community Foundation, a statewide non-profit, commissioned ECONorthwest, a Portland economic consulting group, to research the homelessness issue. ECONorthwest was blunt in its 2019 report.
“A dysfunctional, undersupplied housing market is the root of Oregon’s homeless crisis,” the report authors summarized.
The authors said Oregon’s homeless population is disproportionately large. The state has 1.3 percent of the U.S. population, but 2.6 percent of the nation’s homeless, according to the report. Also, Oregon was building only 63 housing units for every new 100 households formed, ensuring high rents and low vacancy rates.
Rural and low income is one thing, and a lot of people in Oregon grew up that way. But it’s another thing to be rural and have no job and no home and no money and no hope and no way to get somewhere else.
Then layer it with the sickness, sorrow, cost and anger of COVID-19, and the poisonous politics that accompanies it. Where would people be without extended unemployment, rental assistance, payroll protection and other government programs? Worse off, a lot of them.
'Stupid money' drives prices
Out in Prineville, 150 miles east by southeast of Portland and buffeted by a growth tsunami, real estate broker Michael Warren has seen a flood of “stupid money” drive up housing prices. People from outside the area, “Look at the price, they don’t care, they offer more,” he said. “A day later, it’s pending.”
Much of the surge is related to Facebook and Apple deciding to build massive data centers in the high desert. The tech giants, and others such as Amazon were lured to Oregon by property tax exemptions that save them hundreds of millions.
Warren, the Prineville real estate broker, said he’s personally lost 12 to 15 prospective buyers who dropped out because intense bidding put homes out of their price range.
Warren covers a lot of ground, working in not just Crook County but Wheeler and Union, as well. He said interest in commercial property is picking up in some towns, like even Elgin, outside of La Grande in Union County. He thinks house prices will cool off. Not drop like a stone like things did in 2008, but settle down some.
Creating housing for workers
In Yachats, on the Oregon Coast about 150 miles southwest of Portland, Drew Roslund struggled to hire staff at the Overleaf Lodge and the Fireside Motel. He’s a managing partner in the facilities, which are next to each other on the north end of town.
When COVID-19 hit, Roslund laid everyone off, and some didn’t come back to work the tourist season. Some took other jobs, such as in the booming construction field. Some preferred to stay on unemployment, citing factors such as the child care costs they would have to resume paying if they came back to work. Some couldn’t find housing they could afford in Yachats, in part because the town has so many vacation rentals that aren’t available for long-term renters.
In a town of 800 people, Yachats has 143 vacation rentals. The city capped the total at 125, but all the existing vacation rentals were allowed to keep operating. Eighteen would have to be sold or put to other use before someone else can apply again to have a vacation rental. Roslund, who splits his time between Bend and Yachats, owns one of the existing vacation rentals.
In the meantime, Roslund gained city approval to allow RV-type campers on the lodge and motel property, so seasonal workers could stay and work.
He converted one room at the Fireside Motel into a kitchenette suite to house an employee, and will repurpose more rooms into small, temporary apartments for workers. He’s considering turning some of the motel and lodge storage space into living units for employees.
Down in Medford, 270 miles south of Portland, an organization called Rogue Retreat oversees a network of apartments, recovery homes, an urban campground, a “tiny house” village and shelters that provide roofs overhead for about 300 people a night.
“Some say they’re all addicts or drunks or lazy, and a certain percentage are, but most are working poor,” Executive Director Chad McComas said. “Does homelessness lead to addiction, or addiction to homelessness?
“The answer is yes,” he said.
He estimated Rogue Retreat has a 50 to 60 percent success rate if it can get a person into a program and “put case management around them.”
He defines success as “Moving them forward to something better than they came from.”