Washington County, Oregon Experts Share a Proven Strategy for Reducing Homelessness

Reducing Homelessness with successful strategies

Washington County, Oregon, successfully reduced unsheltered homelessness by 35% through a comprehensive system of care that provides diverse shelter options, eviction prevention services, and targeted outreach, without relying on criminalization.


No Handcuffs Needed!

Washington County city leaders eliminated homeless encampments and drastically reduced unsheltered homelessness without enlisting the police. This strategy could serve as a hallmark for communities nationwide, overturning anti-camping ordinances and paving the way for a brighter future – where everyone has a place to call home.

Homeless encampments are not a solution to homelessness. But then again, neither are arrests. Herein lies the nationwide dilemma that increasingly divides public opinion.

On one hand, we have a housing and homeless crisis that is literally spilling out across the city streets. On the other hand, we lack resources, have a series of systemic failures, and have a failed blueprint we keep repeating, thinking it will make the problem go away. Fortunately, there is a middle option that can be much less expensive and much more effective.

In Washington County, Oregon, they call it a “comprehensive system of care.”

We recently sat down with Washington County’s Assistant Director of Homeless Services, Jes Larson, and Executive Director of Open Door HousingWorks, Jeremy Toevs, to learn how they eliminated encampments and significantly reduced unsheltered homelessness, all without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on criminalization. Together, they have accomplished the following seemingly impossible tasks:

  • Established 440 shelter beds
  • Created versatile homeless shelter programs tailored to individual subpopulations within the homeless community, including youth, families, couples, people with pets, single adults, and more
  • Prevented evictions through services, providing a stable housing environment for more than 1,500 households that were teetering on the brink of homelessness
  • Conducted assessments and housing placements through effectively targeted street outreach programs
  • Reduced unsheltered homelessness by approximately 35%

“While state and national trends show upticks in homelessness, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Washington County is trending downward, and most importantly, declined over 35% among people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

                          – Jes Larson of Washington County explaining the effectiveness of this new system.

Invisible People:  Could you describe Washington County, Oregon’s unique approach to eliminating housing through services?

Jes Larson, Assistant Director of Homeless Services:

“Here in Washington County, we have leveraged partnerships across governments and a robust network of community-based organizations to address homelessness at the root.

With the voter-approved regional Supportive Housing Services measure, we don’t just provide one front door. Instead, we opened as many doors and windows as possible to create multiple entry points to our system of care. This means that unhoused individuals and families can enter our system by connecting with an outreach worker, calling Community Connect directly, or through a shelter program with a housing liaison.

In the long term, permanent housing is the key. Our regional long-term rental assistance program functions similarly to the Housing Choice Voucher (formerly Section 8) and makes it possible for formerly homeless people to quickly find housing in our community with the support of case managers and the boost of rental assistance to make housing affordable for them.”

Invisible People: From both financial and moral standpoints, why is this service-based approach superior to the criminalization of homelessness often used by city leaders?

Jeremy Toevs, Executive Director of Open Door HousingWorks: “We had few options for shelter or housing to offer people until the Supportive Housing Services Measure was passed. Now, we can break that cycle by connecting people who have been let down by our systems with real, life-changing resources from a pod shelter to rest and recover to long-term, supportive housing.

When someone moves into their very own apartment, the immediate difference in their mental health, their physical health, and their ability to move from a survival mindset to more long-term planning is incredible to see.”

Invisible People: How do you conduct your comprehensive system of care?

Jes Larson: “Our system of care is built on the principle that there isn’t just one front door. As I mentioned above, we offer as many doors and windows as possible to help people make the transition from sleeping outside to stability. With this philosophy in mind, we’ve dramatically increased our shelter capacity and the types of shelter we provide.

We went from sporadic outreach with limited funding to now ensuring outreach is spread out across Washington County and outreach workers can access shelter and housing resources for the folks they engage. The end goal remains long-term housing, and we are seeing that goal be realized through a variety of housing programs that are tailored to meet folks where they are at and connect them to the best available housing options for them at this moment.

Invisible People: What has been the most promising outcome?

Jes Larson: “One of the most promising outcomes has been the dramatic decrease in encampments in Washington County.

We were able to close the last large-scale encampment in Washington County last year because we had the resources to offer every person staying there shelter and a path to long-term housing. Homelessness is not normal, and it shouldn’t be a given. We’re working to make sure our emergency room doors are always open and working to connect people outside, and in. We’re working to make homelessness rare and brief.”

Invisible People: Could this approach be easily implemented in other regions nationwide? If so, how would you suggest city leaders go about introducing it?

Jes Larson: “What’s working in Washington County, Oregon, is a combination of collaborative partnerships, committed political leadership, and dedicated funding due to voter support. The more we can demonstrate that collaborative and strategic local governments can solve big challenges, the more trust and confidence we will build without forcing the community to take on these tough problems.

We are so thankful for the voters who believed in a version of our community where homelessness is brief and rare, and the approach is one we would absolutely encourage other jurisdictions to pursue. The results here in Washington County are undeniable.”

Invisible People: For people with lived experience, how has this program improved their quality of life?

Jeremy Toevs: “Many of our staff have lived experience with homelessness or housing instability and got into this line of work because we wanted to help other people going through the same challenges we went through.

Having real resources to connect our program participants with is incredibly rewarding. Every day, we watch participants move through that initial mistrust and disbelief to hope and joy as they settle into apartments of their very own. They are grandparents able to have their grandchildren over for the first time, proud dog owners making sure their dog is well taken care of through the transition, aspiring artists hanging up their art for the first time, and the list goes on.”

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

There is a lot we can learn from Washington County’s leadership. Tackling homelessness from all possible angles and working together to tailor individualized care is truly key. Through the success of these strategies, it is clear that a concentrated effort complete with collaborative partnerships and wraparound services makes all the difference between reducing unsheltered homelessness and merely shuffling it around from one street corner to the next.

Inform Your Legislators That There is a Better Way to Address Homelessness than Handcuffs

Please tell them to take a few cues from Washington County, Oregon, and to seek non-punitive solutions that result in housing for all.


Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith

     

Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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