Dictionary entry for homeless
Mayor Chas Jones’s “Philomath Chats” series of programs launched Thursday night with a multi-angled discussion on affordable housing and homelessness.” (Getty Images)

In 24 years of providing affordable rental housing in Philomath for people in difficult situations, Harriet Hughes has seen a lot.

“My feeling is that people need to have housing to be what they would hope to be and without that, life is hard,” she said.

Hughes was one of five invited guests to participate in a panel discussion Thursday night on affordable housing and homelessness. The first in a series of “Philomath Chats” organized by Mayor Chas Jones, Hughes provided insight on her local efforts.

She has 79 rooms in 11 housing units in town. A typical Hughes property is organized like a boarding house with private spaces and common areas. She said one-third of her tenants are elderly, one-third are low-wage earners and one-third are challenged in one way or another.

“Approximately five people live together in a house and they have to be able to live in community or it doesn’t work,” Hughes said. “Most of the houses become family, but not every house. I think what we do works because I spent a lot of energy going through all the houses, just visiting with people.”

Hughes has rules that are enforced for residents, including curfews, no drugs and household expectations, such as keeping the place clean.

Karen Rockwell, executive director of Benton Habitat for Humanity, has known Hughes for years and compared her to a case worker with what she provides in her homes.

“She has, and is, a great model of somebody in the marketplace making a huge impact on affordable housing and that is wonderful, and she understates herself,” Rockwell said. “It doesn’t work without her.”

Hughes has helped many people who have mental health challenges or drug and alcohol addictions, even those trying to get back on their feet out of prison.

“Part of my love of Harriet is that she’s managing a population that would be homeless without her in our community,” Rockwell said. “That is a vulnerable population that is at risk.”

‘We’re in a crisis’

Several angles on the affordable housing and homelessness issues were part of the conversation.

“We’re in a crisis with lack of affordable housing and that’s what’s causing people to become homeless,” said Julie Arena, program coordinator for the HOPE Advisory Board. “I think what the real demand is for more variety beyond the single-family homes on big lots and a variety of price points at lower costs.”

Arena said different housing options are needed such as “duplexes, triplexes, fourplexus, apartments that are affordable, manufactured and mobile home neighborhoods, RV and trailer camping, cottages and microshelter villages.”

Jones referred to a recent city-funded housing needs analysis that showed 70% of home renters and 21% of homeowners are paying 30% or more of their income on housing.

Beyond the individuals that find themselves in homeless situations, there are also families. A couple of years ago when Melissa Goff was the school superintendent in Philomath, the school district took a lead role in trying to help families with students find more stable living situations. Several other local and county agencies were also involved.

“I know a lot of what we see in terms of homelessness is individuals, but it does affect families as well,” said Van Hunsaker, who was part of that group when he was volunteering with Philomath Community Services. “There’s a lot of us that we can learn to help in the process.”

Benton Habitat for Humanity has a six-lot affordable housing development underway in Philomath. Rockwell lauded the efforts of multi-family options coming to town.

“The Conser development (Oak Springs Apartments) that went up — that’s a big deal, that was needed, and projects like that, developers like that, they’re paying attention to Philomath,” Rockwell said. “Opportunities are there and you need to continue to encourage and cultivate them.”

Work on tribal lands

Sami Jo Difuntorum, executive director of housing with the Siletz, believes there is a real need for supportive housing that has intense services offered to help those with mental health or addiction issues.

“A housing first model where fundamentally every person deserves a home and there’s no judgment on their circumstances,” she said. “You find a way to house them and if you can treat issues, you do, and if you can’t, that still doesn’t mean they don’t have a need for shelter. And that’s a tough one, a lot of people have a ‘not in my backyard’ philosophy.”

Grand Ronde Tribal Housing Director Shonn Leno, who incidentally lived in Philomath for a few years while in college, shared positive views on the “wraparound housing” approach in which various organizations work together to provide a holistic program of supports. He said the Grand Ronde currently has a project in place that focuses on elder housing and another that helps with home ownership that in turn frees up rentals.

Jones said he liked the idea of wraparound support services and things like cottage clusters — “a place where people can come together and build community and build relationships. That all helps with mental health issues and I think there’s opportunity there that I’d like to see happen somewhere, maybe in Philomath.”

Arena said that survey feedback with the HOPE Advisory Board showed a great need in Philomath.

“The highest need listed was food assistance and you’ve got an incredible Gleaners program and Philomath Community Services, so what can we do locally that is good — help elevate those programs and bring them into the light. If people ask them how they can get involved, direct them over to the Gleaners because food assistance was 60% of what our rural community members said they needed most.”

Work to be done

The Philomath Chats topic will likely not be the last that the city will hear on the topic. Councilor Catherine Biscoe, who is also part of the HOPE Advisory Board’s efforts, believes it could be a launching point for future discussions and actions.

“I’m hopeful that with the council that we have and with the mayor taking the lead on this topic … I’m hoping we can bring together some meaningful policy so we can start looking at affordable housing options in Philomath,” Biscoe said, “and we can start looking at transitional options and maybe we can collaborate with Corvallis specifically or Benton County specifically and come up with solutions moving forward.”

Biscoe said she believes that success of any change in the community first requires acknowledgement of the need.

“I feel that we really have come a long way in acknowledging that there are in fact many people that are either houseless or underhoused in Philomath and if often goes unrecognized,” she said.

Jones believes it’s critical to try to lift people up and reach out to provide help, even though at times they may not easily accept it. It’s something that he’s personally experienced.

“I grew up in housing projects and in trailer homes and in low-income housing,” Jones said. “Over time, my family was able to grow out of that but it’s something where people lifted us up and we were able to break the barrier.”

Hughes summed up her thoughts on the conversation.

“I think we have to all recognize that we’re all God’s children — rich, poor, no matter where, and we all need one place to keep our belongings safe, a place that we can cook our food, a place that we can do our laundry,” she said.

“We all have to be willing to work toward that and we have to be careful that the NIMBY (not in my backyard) idea doesn’t stop what could be accomplished.”