Benton County became the first of three neighboring governments to formally ask for inclusion in Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s executive order declaring a statewide emergency over homelessness.
Oregon freed up $40 million to find housing for some of the state’s thousands who live without permanent shelter when Kotek made the emergency declaration Jan. 10.
But Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties weren’t included in the governor’s response to what she called a “man-made disaster” because the state housing authority lumps the counties’ unhoused populations together with 23 others, skewing mid-Willamette Valley numbers.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Kotek told reporters in early January.
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Commissioners implored the governor to consider including the region where homelessness has increased by an estimated 89% since the end of 2017, according to the response adopted and emailed by Benton County’s elected board on Tuesday, Jan. 24.
“Our county seat, Corvallis, is the most severely rent-burdened city in the entire state of Oregon,” the letter states.
The Benton letter asks only for an opportunity to be included.
Commissioners will hold off asking for immediate, actionable inclusion while trying to understand what fine print will emerge in the executive order’s implementation.
Potential funding in the order could boost efforts to get emergency shelter and housing projects off the ground in Benton County.
Or it could interfere with the county’s $180-million justice system overhaul that now hinges on a $110 million proposed facilities bond measure and the promise to voters that Benton will provide more services for the community’s unhoused populations.
The overall funding package includes potential budget appropriations in the Oregon and U.S. legislatures, part of a two-year effort to improve outcomes for people in custody and site a justice campus in North Corvallis, starting with a courthouse and district attorney office space.
“We’re just wanting more information. Until we know more, it’s difficult to decide,” Commissioner Xan Augerot said.
What they do know is that Oregon has the wrong impression of Benton County’s unhoused figures, said Augerot, who drafted the county response.
Kotek’s executive order emphasizes the counties anchored around Bend, Eugene, Medford, Salem and Portland. Those are regions organized in a federal program responsible for an annual unhoused population census where counts have increased by 50% or more since 2017.
The remaining 26 of Oregon’s 36 counties are administered as one unit by the Continuum of Care program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, providing funding for housing and houseless services.
But many of those counties individually fall below the governor’s unhoused population growth threshold, bringing down the rural Oregon average that affects Benton and Linn counties.
Or they lack the volunteers and staff needed to conduct the program’s point-in-time count, a survey that tracks how many people across the state live without shelter.
Point-in-time counts showed Benton and Linn counties each had 300 or more unhoused people in 2022, and those numbers likely were undercounted.
Lincoln County tallied another 130, and the three counties together made up about 4% of the state’s estimated 18,000 unhoused population.
Marion and Polk counties left the rural continuum in the 2017-2022 window of the governor’s order, taking their point-in-time counts to a newly formed two-county continuum and forming a new metropolitan in the eyes of HUD.
Their departure also flattened numbers in communities left behind in the Balance of State continuum, such as Albany and Corvallis.
That means the mid-Willamette Valley doesn’t get the same consideration as nearby Eugene or Salem — those cities have considerably more unhoused people and considerably more funding under the executive order.
Instead, Albany and Corvallis are lumped in with communities like Burns, Enterprise and Wheeler in disparate corners of the state.
Possible hoops to jump
Oregon Department of Emergency Management is charged with rolling out the provisions in the order, like finding out what local governments need to end homelessness and establishing multi-agency teams to coordinate those efforts.
What Benton County leaders don’t know is if they will have to open their own emergency operations center in exchange for access to some of the $40 million to be distributed from Oregon Housing and Community Services’ budget over the next two years, Augerot said.
But emergency management authorities are not among the county’s longtime partners, and myriad local, state and non-governmental agencies already working on housing, Augerot said.
Augerot said the executive order spurred conversations among commissioners in all three counties to have Benton, Lincoln and Linn secede from the rural state housing program and form a tri-county continuum.
All three commissions jointly oversee the regional state-designated community action agency, Community Services Consortium.
Augerot said Jackson Street Youth Services, which covers all three counties in close partnership with Community Services Consortium, applied for Continuum of Care grant funding and was turned down.
The unhoused population, artificially deflated by the whole of rural Oregon, didn’t meet the program’s threshold.
“It ties our hands in terms of funding,” Augerot said.
Commissioners in Linn County discussed penning a similar letter, directing staff during their Tuesday, Jan. 24 meeting to develop a response to the governor’s emergency declaration.
Lincoln County Commissioner Claire Hall was set to give a presentation including a similar option Wednesday.
Voicemails left with Lincoln and Linn counties were not returned before deadline.
Benton County also apprised its state congressional delegation.
Augerot said House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, are among those discussing whether the potential state revenue streams clash.
Benton in the meantime is making its unhoused crisis known to the state.
Commissioners signed a resolution recognizing “the state of homelessness in our county to have reached emergency proportions.”
“We have need,” Augerot said.
Alex Powers (he/him) covers business, environment and healthcare for Mid-Valley Media. Call 541-812-6116 or email Alex.Powers@lee.net.