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 Pat Malone. 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 Helen Higgins. The third candidate, Bill Currier, is running unopposed for the Republican nomination; Currier has expressed willingness to answer the questions, but hasn’t gotten back to me as of noon Friday; I’ll add his answers as soon as I receive them.
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?
Benton County’s role is to bring together all the stakeholders and to act as a conduit for state and federal monies for long-term solutions. I supported making Third Street Commons operational. (Third Street Commons, a joint operation of Corvallis Housing First and Unity Shelter, is a remodeled motel in South Corvallis that offers transitional housing to unsheltered people.) I’d like to see the second phase happen so we can keep building on our successes providing transitional housing. I’ll keep seeking other options, like tiny homes, microshelters, and manufactured homes to help solve this problem. The Legislature made some progress when they passed House Bill 4064, which prevents local governments from prohibiting siting of prefabricated structures in all residential zones.
HOPE (Home, Opportunity, Planning and Equity), a city of Corvallis and Benton County collaboration, just received $1 million to support housing. The HOPE Board had done the preparation, showed the Oregon Legislature that we have a plan, and are ready to use the funding.
There is not one answer to this challenge. We’ll need partners of all kinds, and state and federal dollars to implement our goals.
The county already provides medical services and some case management through the Health Department. Much of our human services are done indirectly through Community Services Consortium (CSC), a partnership with Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties. The Respite Center is a much-needed option and should be operational in late 2023.
The County will continue to improve our outreach effort with our partners to connect services that the houseless need.
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?
We are making good progress in implementing our crisis response effort. Of the 12 recommendations from HOPE, I prioritize No. 6 as most important: to get people sheltered 24/7/365 with wrap-around services for mental health problems, substance abuse, and other issues. HOPE has received $1 million through the work of Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin and the state Legislature. The HOPE board is in the process of determining how best to use these funds.
HOPE’s 5th recommendation is a Benton County behavioral health professional going out with Corvallis Police (the CORE program). It’s not 24/7, but we are learning with this pilot program what the questions and concerns are before we ramp up to a larger program.
I would add to their recommendation the proposed Respite Center. It is a short-term place for people in crisis that is not jail and not the emergency room at the hospital. It provides a temporary place for people in crisis.
We’re close to having the funds for our Respite Center. We have $6.5 million from (Oregon House) Speaker Dan Rayfield, and another $1 million obtained through Congressman Peter DeFazio.
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?
The proper role of the Benton County Health Department is to make services available to everyone in the county. Not just people with houses and cars. We do some outreach with our satellite clinics in Alsea, Monroe, and Lincoln School in south Corvallis, along with our main clinic on 27th Street north of Harrison.
Benton County’s health care delivery system is continuing to evolve from bricks-and-mortar clinics by adding dedicated teams of health care professionals who go out into our community and provide a wide range of health services to our houseless residents. These professionals did an outstanding job during the height of the COVID pandemic. We have county personnel who do outreach providing tetanus, hepatitis A and B, and flu vaccines to the homeless at their encampments. With more resources and more trained professionals, Benton County could do more outreach to the houseless.
Our Health Department has been striving to add to our Spanish-speaking staff so we can better serve our increasing number of Spanish-speaking clients.
A part of Benton County’s health care system is our behavioral health effort. This is a critical component of providing wrap-around services to the houseless community. I’m excited about our Respite Center entering the design phase with completion possible by the end of next year.
Doing better often means finding additional resources to initiate new programs, to open the Respite Center, to expand pilot and proven programs to reach more people in need.
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.
My priorities for Benton County spending on the houseless are as follows:
- 15% on prevention. With more dollars coming from other sources and partners such as Good Samaritan.
- 20% on case management. Case management is a critical component of successful housing programs. We should be making sure that the client is connected with needed services.
- 20% Emergency Shelter. Permanent 25/7/365 shelters with more capacity in the winter and summer during periods of extreme temperatures.
- 25% Transitional Housing. This can include micro shelters, managed camping, and units like Third Street Commons.
- 20% Permanent Supportive Housing – This should include every option from respite beds to rental subsidies.
The top priority should be to get people out of the weather. But that effort will fall short if we don’t address the underlying challenges of substance abuse, and physical and mental health problems. The social services and case management need to come at the same time.
Local government and nonprofits have the expertise. We know what to do, but we need the resources that state and federal governments have to make significant progress on this critical issue.
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?
This pilot program is called CORE (Crisis Outreach Respond Engage). We will continue to monitor and adjust this program which started July 1, 2021 and will run through June 30, 2022. Preliminary results are very encouraging. I’m in favor of this program. We can modify as we gain experience and hopefully expand the program beyond the 2 people that are currently staffing it.
We won’t know what is the correct or best way to approach this until CORE has been operating for a full year. CORE is designed for Benton County and its resources. CAHOOTS is a larger scale program designed for Lane County and its much larger population. (It’s 4 times the size of Benton County.) We can learn from CAHOOTS, but we have adjusted it to fit our county, our resources, and our specific needs.