Gov. Tina Kotek signed three executive orders on her first afternoon as Oregon governor, all aimed at reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness in the state.
At least 18,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Oregon, according to the 2022 Point in Time count. In Salem, volunteers for the year’s Point in Time connected with 1,805 people, a 15% increase compared to 2021.
Kotek declared a state of emergency due to homelessness. The ongoing crisis is one that Republicans and Democrats have said they will also prioritize in the upcoming legislative session.
“To reduce homelessness and its impacts, this declaration of emergency is necessary to rapidly expand the state’s low-barrier shelter capacity, to rehouse people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and to prevent homelessness to the greatest extent possible,” the declaration states.
The order directs the state’s Department of Emergency Management to activate the State’s Emergency Operations plan and coordinate the use of funds and resources to reduce the level of unsheltered people in Oregon. It also directs the agency to set up a framework to support ongoing reduction after the state of emergency ends.
Oregon Housing and Community Services will direct $40 million to respond to the emergency, although it is not clear what exactly the repurposed funds will be used for.
The declaration of an emergency applies only to regions of the state that have experienced an increase in unsheltered homelessness of 50% or more from 2017 to 2022.
“Unfortunately, that includes most of the state,” Kotek said. “We must do all we can to address and prevent homelessness so that we can make progress not to just ending homelessness for individual families but for communities across the state.”
Local governments are already familiar with the emergency command structure similar to what happens during natural disasters that will be activated with the executive order, Kotek said. She said she is hopeful the declaration will provide a new tool for partners already doing work toward solving the “man-made disaster.”
Kotek signed two additional orders. One directs state agencies to prioritize the reduction of homelessness in all parts of Oregon, not just areas where the state of emergency has been declared. The other establishes a housing production advisory council and housing production goal in the state.
The Oregon Housing Needs Analysis estimated there is a shortage of nearly 140,000 homes across Oregon, according to Kotek’s executive order. Under the order, Oregon will have an annual housing production target of 36,000 homes and a Governor’s Housing Production Advisory Council will be established to submit recommendations by this spring to meet that goal. A final action plan will be due by Dec. 31.
“The housing construction goal is ambitious because Oregonians are demanding bold solutions to address this crisis,” Kotek said. “I set this target to reflect the level of need that exists knowing that we will not get there overnight, or even in one year.”
Jimmy Jones, executive director at the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, called Kotek’s plan a meaningful and good one, “generally.”
“I hope they’re able to put sideboards around the funding to make sure that housing providers are not cherry-picking low-needs, recently homeless clients over the chronically homeless population that is dying outside every day,” Jones added.
Doing so means spending more money with very little progress, he explained. He’s hopeful that new money will focus on the people who are unsheltered, sick, elderly, disabled, and suffering with chronic substance use and mental health.
Heather Marek, staff attorney with Oregon Law Center and member of the city of Eugene’s Human Rights Commission, said the declaration is encouraging to see so early in Kotek’s governance. In Lane County, there were almost 5,000 people who experienced homelessness in December.
“We do have a housing and homelessness crisis in the state. And housing is the proven intervention for solving housing instability and homelessness,” Marek said. “It’s the most cost-effective and so we strongly support efforts to get new housing built and ensure that people who are experiencing homelessness are moved off of the streets and rehoused.”
Theresa Boudreau works on White Bird Clinic’s Navigation Empowerment Services Team in Eugene and worked for the mobile crisis program CAHOOTS for more than a decade. She said the declaration is a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s ambitious. I think it’s hopeful,” Boudreau said. “I stay in this line of work because I still have hope that we can get our people housed, that we can create communities, and that we can build trust.”
But she and other advocates are concerned that efforts to get people housed will fall short without resources to stabilize them.
“Right now, in Lane County, it’s virtually impossible to get someone in intake so that they’re connected with mental health services,” Boudreau said. “So if their symptoms were a contributing factor to them becoming homeless in the first place, what good is putting them in a home going to do if they don’t have supportive services?”
The concern is echoed by many who work directly with people experiencing homelessness. While a lack of housing certainly worsens the homelessness crisis, it is only one issue that is part of a long list.
“You can’t just give people an apartment and expect everything to work out,” said Dr. Willy Foster, an emergency room physician and longtime volunteer doctor with street medicine organizations. “For many of the people that are unhoused there are other factors that need to be addressed.”
Leaders in other sectors are also eyeing the declaration with hope.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Brittany Quick-Warner, who heads the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s been an emergency for our state for a long time and it’s about time that we take seriously the level and the nature of the crisis.”
She wants to see state leaders look toward cities that have made progress on the issue. She said a lot of good work has been done in Eugene, but organizations and government are nearing a funding cliff as COVID-19 funds run out.
“We’re just going to hold our breath and see what action follows,” Quick-Warner said. “An emergency declaration without action and real measurable impact can really jade the community and the state towards how we can actually accomplish our goals.”
Kotek spoke of her executive orders during her inaugural address Monday. She also asked the Legislature to approve a $130 million investment to help “at least” 1,200 Oregonians who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness move off the streets within a year.
It is a request she will be encouraging the Legislature to move forward with as soon as possible to reflect the “urgency” necessary to the crisis, Kotek said Tuesday.
Executive orders are not enough, she added.
“These actions are important first steps,” Kotek said. “It’s going to take collaboration and commitment across local, state, federal and private sectors to make sure we are acting at the scale and urgency this humanitarian crisis demands.”