Washington County’s homeless population is changing for the familiar
The Lamothes are now in their sixth and final week staying at the shelter. They are among a new population that client manager Rose Browning has increasingly seen come through the center’s doors in the past four years: Noel has a solid professional background. The tightly knit family has never been on the streets. Their lifestyle has never been marred by drug or alcohol abuse.
“We have more people with college degrees, more people who have been homeowners, who have had careers” coming to the center, Browning said.
The Lamothes are an upbeat group loyally attended by Crissy, a devoted German shorthair pointer who serves as a companion animal to Cally. Zoe and her brother Ethan are energetic and talkative — “really just champs,” Noel said. But he and his wife had to pool their resources with donations from extended family in order to afford Christmas gifts for their children, and Noel’s emergency unemployment compensation benefits run out in two weeks.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after that,” he said.
According to the most recent data collected by Oregon Housing and Community Services, the Lamothes aren’t atypical in their change of fortune: The top three most common causes of homelessness in Washington County are unemployment, unaffordable rent and substance abuse within the household. The first two factors describe the Lamothes’ experience.
Noel, 46, lost his telecommuting job in May. Although his company had experienced a record sales quarter, a spike in gas prices increased shipping costs and diminished profits. As the newest hire in his department, Noel was the first to be let go.
Cally, 30, explained that they were able to sustain themselves for the next six months.
“We tried our best to just keep our heads above water, but my Social Security (for disability) is only about $700 a month, and that was our rent,” she said. “And then his unemployment’s only about $125 a week, and you can’t live with that, not with two kids. I’m surprised we did it for as long as we did.”
Each month they fell a little further behind on rent, Noel said. They lost their apartment in Raleigh Hills in early November, but worked with their landlords to avoid an eviction. That’s when the Lamothes learned there is a number to call if you’re staring down the prospect of living on the streets.
That number — 503-640-3263 — can prove a lifeline for families and individuals in immediate need of shelter, or for households unable to make rent or keep the power on. It connects callers to Community Action, a shelter and resource center which, along with Good Neighbor Center and Family Bridge, focuses on “rehousing services.” Those in the Lamothes’ situation are put on a waitlist to be placed in one of the three family shelters.
A place to stay
As of Christmas Eve, there were 35 families on the shelter wait list, reported Corie Jensen of Community Action.
Cally admits that until her family was compelled to move into Good Neighbor Center in Tigard, she envisioned homeless shelters as large, single-room facilities full of cots. Instead, the Lamothes found a facility equipped with nine rooms to house as many families.
The quarters are tight, and often less than ideal: The first room the family was assigned offered a twin bed for NoÃ«l and Cally.
“It’s just kind of hit or miss which room you get, and what your family needs,” Cally said. “It’s a place to stay, which is more important than the luxury items.” But even those are provided for in some capacity, she said, noting that hygiene and self-care items — from shampoo to cosmetics to towels â€“ are available at the center.
There are also strict regulations in place at the center: While the shelter provides a food pantry, breakfast is from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., without exception. The adults are assigned daily chores, and the shelter’s staff is to be left alone between 1 and 3 p.m. to allow time for intake. There is a strict curfew of 10 p.m.
All of this strikes the Lamothes as more than reasonable.
“You could live here without spending a penny,” said Noel. “We’re grateful that this place is here.”
Shelter for sobriety
Amber Dement, 26, admitted substance abuse played a significant role in her current homeless status.
There was never a single crisis moment that drove her and her two elementary school-aged children out on the street. Instead, Dement explained, it was years of physical abuse and drug-enabling behavior that made life with her mother and stepfather unbearable — for her. Yet she trusted her family to take care of Miguel, 8, and Mariela, 7, when she found the tension with her stepfather unbearable. Dement sometimes spent nights couch-surfing or camping in parks until late last August when, she said, she checked herself into Providence Portland’s detox center for two weeks. She had realized her son was at an age where he was old enough to understand (and later remember) her alcoholism. After a brief relapse, Dement can boast a month and a half without a drink.
With her new sobriety, Dement said she still felt stifled and scrutinized in her mother’s home. Dement is a certified pastry chef, but does not currently have a job. She also had eight days of jail time to complete as the result of a conviction she received for driving under the influence of alcohol last January.
After a brief stay at Good Neighbor Center, Dement and her children were referred to Community Action’s Hillsboro Family Shelter. On Saturdays and Sundays, Dement reports to the Washington County Jail to serve time from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Shelter rules are clear that children staying at the facility can only be away from the house for one night each week, but Dement found Jensen extremely accommodating of her particular circumstances. Jensen agreed Miguel and Mariela could stay with their grandmother two nights a week.
“We said we would work with (Dement) so then she could work on housing stability,” Jensen said.
By 2012 standards, a three-person household with an annual income below $19,090 is considered to be living in poverty.
For Noel, the issue of unemployment is more complicated than a simple lack of jobs. He has observed a shift in hiring practices and feels that, with the supply of willing workers far outweighing the demand, many employers are taking advantage by offering lower wages.
There have been days this year, he said, where he would submit more than 50 job applications, only to receive no acknowledgement. A seasoned forklift operator, Noel was told by a recruiter that the market was so competitive, his 15,000 hours of experience as a driver meant little since he’d held a couple other positions since — he was a seasonal census worker for three years before finding his most recent job, which allowed him to work from home.
With Browning’s help, the Lamothes were able to enroll in Shelter Plus Care, a federal program which offers financial assistance to families where at least one adult is receiving Social Security disability benefits. Social Plus Care is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the length of the program is indefinite.
Thanks to the program, the Lamothes now have access to housing vouchers. Four days before Christmas, they turned in an application for a three-bedroom apartment that accepts Section 8 funding.
Doing more with less
Upon arrival at one of Washington County’s three family shelters, families are assigned a case manager or advocate who aids them in their search for permanent housing. Families can stay at the shelter for a maximum of six weeks, Browning explained.
“We ask them to stay on the (family shelter) wait list during that time, so that if their six weeks ends and they don’t find housing, they can go to one of the other two shelters,” she said.
While the center does sometimes host repeat residents, families can only stay at each facility once a year. This is meant to guarantee equal access to shelter for all homeless families, but the limit further emphasizes the perils of housing insecurity countywide. There has been such high demand for the Section 8 housing voucher program that Washington County closed the service’s waiting list in September of last year. At that point, the wait for rental and utilities assistance for low-income groups was more than three years.
This comes at a time when Washington County’s low rental vacancy rate means landlords have less incentive to work with tenants who may have an eviction in their history or who depend on Section 8 assistance to pay rent.
And while Community Action’s one number approach has successfully kept many area families off the street, need far exceeds the organization’s resources, according to manager of housing and homeless services Pat Rogers. He said during the week of Nov. 26, his office received 333 calls regarding rent assistance and more than 2,000 calls regarding energy assistance. Of that, the organization was able to serve about 50 requests.
From July 2 through Dec. 2, he added, the organization received about 10,400 calls regarding housing and energy assistance.
Lacking the resources to prioritize such a large volume of calls, Community Action awards assistance on a “first-come, first-served” basis, Rogers said.
For the children
In the last days before his family moved into Good Neighbor, Noel graciously accepted family and friends’ offers to fund a few nights’ stay in a motel — then realized it was the off-season on the coast, and that they could save a few bucks by hanging out in Seaside instead of Beaverton.
Still, he and Cally have had a strict policy of honesty with their children.
“We told them what was happening, so nothing’s been unexpected and they’ve been really, really good at dealing with it,” Noel said. Being forthright about their situation has made him and Cally strong advocates for their children, and they’ve been very pleased with the support they found at their children’s Beaverton school, which Ethan and Zoe have attended since kindergarten.
“When we talked to the school district, (the district) talked extensively about the students’ rights,” Noel said. “They have the right to go to the same school, no matter where we’re staying. They can stay at the same school for consistency’s sake.”
The 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act set out clear federal guidelines to ensure homeless students get consistency in public education. The act includes exceptions to school district residency requirements, so homeless students can remain at one school as their families seek permanent housing.
Because the family remains in Washington County, the Beaverton School District sends a bus to pick Ethan and Zoe up every morning and drop them off afterschool in Tigard.
Dement, too, has found the staff at her children’s’ school to be helpful. Like the Lamothes, she was determined that her kids have an uninterrupted education. But because Miguel and Mariela attend a school in Gresham but reside in a different county, the district is not required to send a school bus to pick them up. Instead, the Gresham-Barlow School District provides TriMet passes for the family to ensure Dement’s children have adequate transportation to school.
Trying to provide her children some stability has given Dement’s life a much more rigid structure. Her day starts at 5 a.m., when she hustles to get her kids ready in time to catch the MAX to Gresham. All told, the Dements spend about four hours on public transportation each day. Dement generally spends the school day in Gresham, making herself useful at her grandmother’s house until school lets out.
“Then we get home, have time to eat, shower, go to bed,” said Dement. “I have time to do my chore and go to bed.”
The long trek and the shelter’s 9 p.m. curfew make afterschool activities impossible for the time being, but Dement looks forward to the day she can sign Miguel up for soccer and let Mariela join Camp Fire.
As she comes up on the end of her stay in the homey, two-story shelter, Dement has a choice to make: Accept Community Action’s offer of assistance with move-in costs and one month’s rent at a more permanent residence, or wait and hope a family advocate becomes available at Human Solutions, an organization in Multnomah County that could potentially provide not only move-in costs, but a year’s worth of rent — and place them all closer to her children’s school.
A sheltered Christmas
Community Action reports that shelter requests actually decrease during the holiday season. Still, the shelters make a point of providing a memorable holiday to families like the Dements and the Lamothes, compelled to spend Christmas in transitional housing.
Over in Hillsboro, a professional photographer volunteered to take holiday-themed family portraits, Dement said.
Curfew keeps Dement and her children from being able to take part in their usual family tradition at an aunt and uncle’s home in Gresham, Dement said. But she wasn’t worried that they would miss out on the holiday altogether.
“They do a lot of stuff here that’s amazing,” she said. “They’re actually doing something here that’s at a bowling alley here in Hillsboro. There’s a restaurant next door that’s like a buffet there, and then we go across the street to the bowling alley and we get to bowl, and there’s a Santa Claus who gives a gift to the kids.”
According to Browning, there is a staff member at Good Neighbor whose primary responsibility is “to make sure everyone has a great Christmas.”
Families at Good Neighbor are each “adopted,” or sponsored, by organizations, other families and even individuals.
“They had us fill out a wish list for each of us, and for the family,” Noel said. They were also asked for clothes sizing information.
“They actually gave [the survey] back to me and said, ‘You didn’t put anything on your wish list,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got family stuff.’ They said, ‘Nope. You’ve got to put something.'”
Beyond the wish list items, donated gifts come in from around the community. It’s not unheard of for the center to devote two rooms that are filled nearly floor to ceiling to accommodate the donations. And the community’s largesse doesn’t go to waste, Browning explained: “Leftover” gifts are given throughout the year to children who spend their birthdays at Good Neighbor.
“They really make sure that you have a good Christmas here,” Callie said, “which is really nice because we’re so down on our luck and everything else, we wouldn’t have been able to afford Christmas presents for the kids on our own.”