In a silver lining to the otherwise dismal stream of news coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, a number of area homeless families and individuals found permanent housing as a result of the pandemic.

Gorge Outreach, a program of Community Action Partnership of Oregon, began during the early days of the pandemic. Its purpose was two-fold: Provide temporary housing through hotel vouchers to follow stay-at-home orders, and connect people to services.

Alisa Fowler, a licensed clinical social worker who works with the homeless in Hood River, wrote the grant for the voucher program and had oversight for the project as lead program coordinator.

Fowler said two families were able to get into permanent housing as a result of the voucher program, and a third family was placed in a transitional shelter. The three families had a total of 11 children between the ages of 4-16.

A Hood River individual with complex medical needs was placed in an adult foster home and three other chronically homeless people with disabilities found permanent housing within a month of the voucher program ending, according to a report by Fowler.

Three veterans were referred for ongoing housing assistance after the voucher program ended.

From March 26 to May 22, 83 vulnerable community members were lodged at two hotels in Hood River and one hotel in The Dalles, which included 30 rooms at its highest point.

The program was aimed at individuals or families with at least one person who had a medical condition making them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

Forty-four people from The Dalles were helped by the program, said Darcy Long-Curtiss, a The Dalles city councilor and homeless advocate who was paid by the program to help as an outreach facilitator.

Long-Curtiss recalled in February watching the news about the lockdowns in China to combat the spread of COVID-19, and realized that would be a problem here for homeless populations.

Then, on March 17, she was shocked when she got a call saying the warming shelter would not open that night because there were no volunteers because of the fear of the spread of COVID-19. “It was still cold,” she said, “my friend and I were the scheduled volunteers and we wanted to be open, but they said no, so I opened my own.”

Shortly thereafter, Long-Curtiss learned about the grant Fowler was writing. When she was asked if she’d like Wasco County to be included, “I said, ‘Yes please,’” Long-Curtiss said.

The original funding request for $150,000 for the first 30 days of the program was approved under the fiscal oversight of Community Action Partnership of Oregon utilizing state of Oregon response COVID-19 funds disbursed through Oregon Housing and Community Services. Approximate costs per participant including hotel vouchers, staffing support, meals and basic needs assistance was $455 a week.

Additional funds for the program to extend services to those with the highest vulnerability to complications from COVID-19 until Phase 1 reopening were provided through CAPO, a grant from COVID-19 Gorge Community Response, and private and in-kind donations.

Gorge Outreach staffing included two program coordinators, one for Hood River and one for Wasco and Sherman counties who performed screening, intake, coordination with community partners, staff supervision, and direct client support.

Hood River staffing included three outreach workers and Wasco County had two outreach workers and one staff dedicated for meal prep and delivery.

Staff included a licensed clinical social worker, an RN, two former Peace Corp volunteers, a civil engineer, as well as multiple staff with lived experience of homelessness and experience providing food and basic needs resources to Gorge area residents experiencing homelessness.

The program ran during statewide shutdown orders, which meant the restaurants and public restrooms the homeless typically use were closed. “So they didn’t have access and then you really have a hygiene problem,” Long-Curtiss said.

“By having them in the hotels we gave them a place where they could socially distance, stay well and keep those around them from getting sick,” Long-Curtiss said.

They had food delivered from Community Meals, and they received laundry services. They were connected with healthcare if they needed it. The priority for housing went to families and people who were older and more at risk if they got COVID-19. But nobody in the program got COVID-19, she said.

None of the families who were homeless had to go back to being homeless after the voucher program ended, Fowler said.

The program had a number of community partners, including local food banks, social work programs, mental health programs, local restaurants and hotels, and numerous community members who donated goods.

Program participants also saw other benefits. They were able to apply for economic impact payments through the federal CARES ACT, and they were used for things like laptops for work and education access, car repairs, and buying cars.

People also used their time in the hotel rooms to look for work, and one person got a job that came along with a tiny home to live in.

Four kids who were in the voucher program while it was their birthday received cards and birthday cake. A chronically homeless veteran was able to access grooming services and veterinary care for his dog.

The shutdown period presented other problems for the homeless, Long-Curtiss said, including the can returns being shut at stores, which affected a source of income.

“It’s a misconception that people who are homeless don’t have income,” she said. Some don’t, but a lot of veterans and people on disability have income.

“But they can’t save to get a place to live because it’s incredibly expensive to be homeless. You can’t store food, you can’t buy supplies,” Long-Curtiss said. “If you don’t have a place to wash it, you can’t get a reusable fork and plate and cup.”

People also can’t leave their stuff somewhere, because camps get closed down or their stuff constantly gets stolen. Their ID gets stolen and they can’t prove who they are to get a check cashed. And they couldn’t get replacements because the DMV was closed. The Social Security office was closed so they couldn’t replace their Social Security card.

Renting a place requires two forms of ID, and many can’t provide it, she said.

Because the program was short-term, “We felt a definite time crunch to help people as much as we could,” Long-Curtiss said.

She thought it was a noble concept to find permanent housing for the people on the voucher program, but one unlikely to succeed given how hard it is in normal times to find housing.

“I didn’t see how this was going to be any different but it really was,” Long-Curtiss said.

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