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Speaker Tina Kotek: Oregon Should Declare A Homelessness State Of Emergency

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek says Oregon’s crisis of unsheltered homelessness has reached emergency status.

So as she prepares to push an ambitious funding proposal in next month’s legislative session, the Portland Democrat is mulling a remarkable option: A statewide emergency declaration that would allow cities around the state to more easily site homeless shelters.

“This is an ongoing crisis,” Kotek said. “We know it’s there, and the state’s got to step up and help our local communities deal with it.”

Kotek is currently researching what it would take for Oregon to declare a state of emergency, and what the outcomes could be, she said. Her hope is that the entire state could follow the lead of Portland, which in 2015 declared a housing emergency that allowed city agencies and nonprofit providers to more easily put homeless shelters on plots of land not zoned for such a use.

“That’s what I would be recommending,” Kotek said. “I don’t want them to get hung up on traditional zoning and site permitting when they need to get a shelter established.”

The House speaker, known for pushing housing policy, is not stopping there. She said she’ll press her fellow lawmakers to allocate up to $100 million in one-time money that could be spent expanding shelter capacity in Oregon. Securing that much cash could be a big lift in an even-year “short session,” where new funds are limited and Kotek’s vision will be competing with others, such as Gov. Kate Brown’s plan to seek millions for wildfire preparedness.

Kotek also wants to establish “navigation centers” in Eugene and Salem. That model offers low-barrier shelter, case-management and services to unsheltered people all in one facility.

And Kotek hopes to commission a study that could lay the groundwork for a state voucher system to help poorer people pay for housing.

“I think we just have to step up and do something more dramatic,” she said.

Kotek drew some conclusions about Oregon’s needs from a statewide shelter study issued by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Services. Released last August, the report painted a dire picture of the state’s ability to offer people experiencing homelessness a safe, warm place to sleep.

“Homelessness, especially unsheltered homelessness, is of catastrophic proportions in Oregon,” the report concluded, noting that Oregon, California and Hawaii have the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. “Oregon is one of four states in which more than half (61 percent) of all people experiencing homelessness were found in unsheltered locations.”

The study found that the state would need more than 5,800 additional shelter beds in order to shelter all of its homeless, but also was clear that “increasing emergency shelter beds is not sufficient.”

“Shelters must become low barrier and housing-focused,” it said. “Other aspects of the system must also work towards implementation of best practices.” 

Precisely how an emergency declaration would work in Oregon is not clear. Gov. Brown typically issues such declarations for instance when the state is hit with winter storms or wildfires  as a way to free up resources to address the issue. Kotek said Thursday she was still looking into what a housing state of emergency would look like.

Brown’s office acknowledged that there had been preliminary conversations about an emergency declaration, but did not  say whether the governor would support such a step.

“The Governor shares Speaker Kotek’s view that the affordable housing crisis is a pressing challenge that impacts communities all across Oregon, and that will require urgent, concerted, and coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to address,” spokesman Charles Boyle said in an email. “Our office continues to have conversations with legislators about the best path forward leading up to the short session …”

Boyle said that lawmakers and the governor allocated more than $300 million for housing and homeless services in the current budget, but added “there is still a sizable shortage in housing and shelter options available across our state.”

If it did declare a homelessness emergency, Oregon would follow the lead of Hawaii, which first made such a declaration in 2015. Gov. David Ige expanded the declaration in 2018, suspending a variety of state statutes in order to help the state cope with its homelessness crisis.

More recently, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has faced calls to declare a state of emergency in his state. And in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed spending $300 million in state emergency funds to create 2,100 shelter beds, among other things. 

In Oregon, the difficulty of siting new shelters has grown apparent not far from Kotek’s suite of offices. Salem last month enacted a ban on camping on its streets, with a goal of creating 140 emergency shelter beds for unsheltered people by New Year’s Day.

Instead, the city only expanded its capacity by 25 beds, the Statesman Journal reported, a situation that has led camps to be chased from site to site, including one in the shadows of the state Capitol.

Kotek said Thursday that  situation has the interest of Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat.

“They don’t have enough shelter beds. They’ve been trying to site a shelter,” Kotek said. “The Senate President knows what the issues are. He’s very interested in making sure his community has more resources. So that will definitely be part of this.”

Courtney could not be reached for comment about the proposal for declaring a state of emergency on Friday. His office said he has been working to locate a site for a warming shelter in Salem, and that he “is definitely supportive of helping cities find places for shelters.”

<p>House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-N/NE Portland, addresses the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-N/NE Portland, addresses the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.