Oregon county pushes to find homes for homeless

PORTLAND — Robert and Tina Shanks know the difference 30 days can make. Thirty days ago, they got to move off the rigid, Army-green cots of Multnomah County's emergency warming center into their own apartment. Thirty days ago, they gave their daughter her own room in time for her to celebrate her 14th birthday.

The Shankses aren't used to taking handouts. They moved here from Washington in November, lured by the promise of a better-paying job. But when the Shankses got off the Greyhound bus, the number of the construction contractor who was going to hire Robert Shanks was disconnected.

The family stayed in a motel until money ran out, then were forced to bed down among dozens of others who found themselves homeless this winter.

Now the Shankses are among 34 families — including 56 children and four women about to give birth — that are no longer homeless, because of an aggressive county pilot program designed to remove the usual bureaucratic hurdles and find housing for 30 families between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15.

County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury pushed the 30 Families in 30 Days initiative at the end of last year after learning that emergency shelters had reached capacity even before the cold season hit.

Halfway through the initiative, it looked as if the county and its community partners might not find enough landlords willing to risk housing the homeless. But with a lot of scrimping and the incentive of guaranteed rent for six months and coverage for damages, Kafoury proudly announced last week that the program, funded by the county, exceeded its goal.

"Sometimes the obstacles seem so great and you feel like you have to accomplish everything that it renders you immobile," Kafoury said. "Instead of trying to tackle all homelessness in Portland, we had a specific target that was relatively small, and in that we were able to be successful."

The county applied to the local homeless population the same emergency housing approach it used to help those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It disbanded the normal screening process that can take months to get housing assistance for the needy and made funds available to landlords immediately.

As a result, its partners — homeless-service providers Human Solutions and JOIN — were able to quickly move the homeless families out of shelters, which referred the families to the county, and into apartments and make room for others to come into the shelters from their cars and outside.

"Putting the emergency-response lens on allowed us to say, 'Find the families, find the landlords and get them housed. We don't care how you do it,'" said Mary Li, community services manager for Multnomah County. "Frankly, this was a big risk. We can't do this with every case, but we need to think differently about how government works."

Though the first stage of the initiative was a success, for the overall program to succeed, the county and its partners are launching a second phase. They're now looking to find 30 employers in 30 days.

If the families are to be able to stay in those homes after the county stops footing the bill, they have to have jobs. Most of the families served by the program are homeless because they can't find a job in this tough economy: 75 percent have been homeless for less than a year, and 71 percent are either looking for work, working at least part time or in a job training program.

The Shankses say getting their daughter out of a shelter and into a home has brought her smile back. But to keep that smile, they must find the work they've desperately been seeking since moving here. Robert had worked in maintenance and Tina in sales and as a teacher's aide.

It was hard to accept a helping hand, Robert Shanks said, but he is grateful for a county program that allowed his family to avoid months of shelter life.

"This gives us time to get back on our feet and find a job," he said. "We want to be a success story and be able to say, 'We don't need help anymore. Give it to someone else who needs it as much as we needed it.'"

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