Helen Higgins on houselessness

by | Apr 29, 2022 | Candidates on Houselessness | 0 comments

Recently, I asked the three candidates for the Benton County Board of Commissioners a series of questions about their views on houselessness, and more specifically, what they thought Benton County should be doing to provide services to the county’s unsheltered population. I encouraged them to go into some depth with their answers, because I knew they’d be limited to two-minute answers on the topic in the various public forums they’ve been attending.

Here are the questions and answers from Helen Higgins. The answers are unedited, except in cases in which I felt it best to add something for the sake of clarity (spelling out an acronym, for example, or offering a bit of detail). Those annotations are in bold type.

Click here to see the responses from Pat Malone. The third candidate, Bill Currier, is running unopposed for the Republican nomination; Currier has expressed willingness to answer the questions, but hadn’t gotten back to me as of noon Friday; I’ll add his answers as soon as I receive them.

Helen Higgins. (Photo courtesy of Helen Higgins.)

Question 1: What is the proper role of Benton County in providing services to people who are houseless? To list a few examples: Should the county be working to provide shelter? Permanent supported housing? Affordable housing? Case management and medical services for houseless people? What has the county gotten right in its approach to houselessness? What can the county do better?


Currently, county government is responsible for the delivery of health and social services for residents. Funding is directed from the federal and state governments to deliver community health and wellness programs for all residents. It also is their role to coordinate with city government and to facilitate formal processes to address the issue of homelessness, as seen with the joint city/county HOPE (Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity) Advisory Board. I believe that county government can provide leadership in forming partnerships, including federal and state agencies to allocate funding and extend expertise in support of regional local governments, businesses, higher education and nonprofit service providers collaborating to implement programs to reduce homelessness.

The city of Corvallis also has a Social Services fund that was voted on by residents many years ago. Although the funding is not large (about $350,000 annually), many cities have adopted a similar approach to address the impact we feel at the local level after decades of divestment in the social service fabric from the federal level down. The county takes the lead on social service strategic plans and funding, but our community issues have grown so large and complex it’s imperative the county be a good convener of strategic partners in our county and our region, and provide clear leadership to move initiatives forward that address the immediate and long-term impact and causes of homelessness in Benton County.

In Benton County, we have a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) that provides additional financial support to meet the needs of low-income and at-risk community members for medical, mental health and dental services. The FQHC and the Health Department both sit under the larger Health Services Department. When looking at the county’s budget for this biennium, the largest growth area in expenses and revenue is in the Health Department, primarily because of the revenue generated through FQHC payments for services delivered. The FQHC is a tremendous benefit to our ability to fund and do more. After talking with Dannielle Brown from Benton County Mental Health, I learned it is funding from the FQHC that allows the county to increase capacity and hire staffing. It’s not enough for sure, but it’s moving in the right direction from where it was just a short three-plus years ago.

We as a county and a country have years to make up from the defunding and underfunding of the mental health and the social services. It was not until somewhere around 2015 when the law changed to require insurance carriers to cover mental health services. We are trying to catch up on building the housing, workforce and the programs to meet this need.

Capacity Building

The county is an important strategic partner to increase the capacity of shelters and permanent-supported housing for houseless residents. The county and the cities must work together to develop a plan, set measurable goals, monitor progress and, most importantly, prioritize funding and appropriate staffing support. County commissioners, in collaboration with city councilors, must boldly lead the work to reshape land-use rules and the permitting processes to reduce the systemic barriers that have developed over time and contribute greatly to our overall lack of housing inventory in Benton County.

This collaboration between the city and the county can also work on increasing low- to moderate-income housing options. The county commissioners can work with the City Council’s elected officials to move land-use policy in a direction that makes it less cumbersome to approve and move on housing options, especially those directed at our low-to-moderate income community members.

For our houseless and low-income residents, integrating the county’s support resources to help at-risk community members navigate all of the systems available to overcome barriers to health services, food, rent assistance and job skills training, to name a few, is another key area the county can continue to invest in case managers to help community members struggling to find the right resources and support.

The next issue to tackle as a community is the issue of insurance and liability. In spite of promising ideas that would provide immediate relief to many living in dire unhoused circumstances, it appears that the question of risk, and how to provide insurance or create ways to indemnify those who offer up land or spaces for camping and microshelters, is the current tough issue to solve. This once again is a place that commissioners and city councilors can provide leadership and encourage innovative thinking to address this hurdle.

Question 2: Considering the recommendations from the city-county HOPE (Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity) advisory board: Which ones would you place the highest priority on and why? What items would you add to the list of recommendations and why? How would you fund your top priorities?

Of the 15 recommendations I would prioritize the following:

No. 6. Benton County needs a 24/7/365 emergency sheltering system for all populations with onsite resources at any shelter location to transition people out of homelessness.

This recommendation is focused on triaging our current problem. Today, we have hundreds of community members who need a place to live outside of the elements in a stable and safe location. By focusing our resources on this recommendation, it increases the urgency and, hopefully, the will to address the remaining barriers that would make sanctioned campsites and additional microshelter solutions possible until we can build and secure permanent housing.

No. 3. Adopt the Hub Model of care coordination as a framework for doing business that coordinates existing partners to provide the best possible service to individuals.

I have worked within coordinated care models in the IHN/CCO (InterCommunity Health Network, the coordinated care organization that serves Benton County). The power of this model is the ability to bring all of the people to the table who have a deep knowledge of a piece of the bigger systemic problem. Aligning on the problem statement and then creating a joint strategy and goals for the purpose of making real and sustainable change works. It’s important in this approach to keep it “person-centric.” That means keeping the voice of those we are trying to help in the creation of the solution so we don’t continue to traumatize them unintentionally because we may not have the lived experience. A Hub Model also decreases the likelihood of duplication of effort, silo thinking and acting.

Several of the other priorities could most likely be managed through a Hub Model, like referral pathways, a crisis response team and case management. All of these services are part of the total system that must be built to scaffold the support and reduce the percentage of people falling into or staying in an unhoused situation.

No. 11. Increasing rental/income assistance would help people stay in their housing so they don’t become homeless in the first place, and it also would provide funding to move residents off the streets and eventually out of the shelters to permanent housing. There are federal and state funds that are available, and are increasing, to assist in these goals. Private foundations like Oregon Community Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust have initiatives in place to address community needs around reducing homelessness or the risk of becoming homeless.

No. 12. Increasing the development of affordable housing feels like it should be a No. 1 task, but this takes time. We have to continue the work to reduce the complexity of current land-use codes and the time it takes to get projects approved to increase development. Complex codes only add to the cost of developing housing, which is why many builders focus on higher-end housing. The state has invested in housing incentives and subsidies available through a competitive grant process that incentivizes builders to invest in building quality apartment complexes that integrate services onsite to support low-to-moderate income residents. Anything we can do to encourage investment in our community by these companies to increase inventory is a priority for me. Currently, a company out of Portland is submitting a grant application in this process to build an apartment complex in South Corvallis off of Highway 99.

I believe the HOPE Advisory Board has created a comprehensive list based on what we know today. In conversations with community members working on the ground to put solutions in place, the hurdle of risk and insurance has stopped microshelter projects and the development of managed camps. This is an issue that will take a collective group of government, business and community partners to address. Our cities and counties already are bearing the risk of allowing “illegal camps” should a fire break out and spread to nearby homes or businesses.

Question 3: What is the proper role of the Benton County Health Department in providing services to people who are houseless? What has the department done well in its work with people who are houseless? What could the department do better?

Benton County is doing good work within the context of the limitations they cannot control. They collaborate well with service providers in the community. For example, the Street Outreach Team (SORT), a program that has been in place for a couple of years, goes out to the homeless camps and offers information on available services and shelter space. One shining example that was brought to my attention is the effort of Chris Gray, a Benton County employee, who works with those with addictions in our community. He has built relationships and trust among these residents to help them move toward treatment and stay as safe as possible.

I am hard-pressed to say what else the Benton County Health Department can do better. I think they are doing as well as they can despite the amount of funding and staffing available. It will be a loss to our county with the recent departure of Dannielle Brown, deputy director of behavioral health for Benton County. Her passion and vision for solid solutions, like the soon-to-be constructed crisis center, will help us make a difference in addressing both mental health, addiction and potentially permanent-supported housing in the same building. We must continue to use proven evidence-based solutions like the crisis center model to address the problem efficiently and effectively.

Some believe we could triple the amount of mental and behavioral health services and still not meet the need. This can feel very overwhelming, but county staff and nonprofits who work in this space keep fighting the good fight to care for our residents who are vulnerable.

I would make a plug here that families and youth should get a bit more focus. Much of the time and energy, and even the priorities of the HOPE Advisory Board, appear to be focused on adults. It’s so important to get and keep our youth on track, get them the services they need, and get teens into safe homes to reduce the trauma that is at the core of many of our adult homeless residents.

Question 4: Assume that the county has $1 to spend on services to the homeless. How should that dollar be allocated? For example, how many cents should be spent on shelter? How many on permanent supported housing? How many on case management, and so forth? How many on managed camping? Briefly explain your funding priorities.

As seen in the comprehensive list of recommendations from the HOPE Advisory Board, to effectively address the issue of homelessness that affects our county and our country, we must be willing to take action across all levels of government to correct a history of inequity and neglect, especially for people of color and the poor.. Access to essential services that are necessary for individuals and families to thrive include education, affordable housing, health care (physical and behavioral) and employment.

Complex deep-rooted problems require commitment and resources at all levels if we are to expect any chance of success; it would be easy to add homelessness to the “too tough pile” and move on.

In the spirit of answering the question, “What part of the car do I want to pay for with my dollar?” here’s how I’d allocate that funding:

  • Fifty cents for case management. Once people are housed, we need to invest in case management to help move them out of crisis mode and into stable personal situations with the ability to hold a job to encourage self-sufficiency. Case managers (CMs) are an essential link in coaching individuals to take the necessary steps to move from the streets to permanent-housing solutions. At each stage of the transition, case managers connect clients with resources to negotiate challenges including transportation, job skills training, employment, benefits, housing and health services.
  • Thirty cents toward building permanent-supported housing (PSH). We must invest in long-term capacity to address the core underlying issue. People managing chronic mental illness, those needing support for addiction treatment, and individuals who cannot work due to a disability need a place to live off the streets.
  • Twenty cents toward managed camping and shelters. This short-term intervention is required as we work on building permanent-supported housing. But we should not be thinking this is the primary way we house those who become homeless or are chronically homeless. It actually is the first step in a multistep process to achieving housing security. This needs to include adequate shelter capacity for youth and those experiencing domestic violence.

Question 5: The Health Department has launched a trial program with the Corvallis Police Department to respond to people experiencing mental health crises. The program is reminiscent of the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, but with at least one key difference: CAHOOTS calls are responded to by a medic and an experienced crisis worker. In Corvallis, a uniformed officer and a mental health professional respond to calls. Is this the correct approach? Why or why not?

The model is good. Using research and evidence-based practices to assist community members experiencing a mental health crisis and seeing the situation with a perspective of social services and health instead of a strictly police lens is the right step.

In reading about CAHOOTS in Eugene, the Eugene Police Department (EPD) still is involved in the program and it is housed out of EPD. It appears it’s a blend of police, mental health professionals and medics.

In learning more, the CAHOOTS model tends to lean toward social service support and outreach. It does not take on higher-level cases where someone is being violent or where these case workers could be in physical danger due to the situation where they are dispatched, such as domestic violence or assault calls. Eugene Police handles those calls.

My priority on any program is to ensure our service providers are safe and have a safe, working environment. I think the approach that Benton County and the Corvallis Police Department are taking is a great and impactful first step. I’d like to see our sheriff’s deputies get trained and begin to use this process in the communities they serve. I am certain this will happen once they are able to fill their staffing gaps.

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