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An update with Deschutes County Coordinated Houseless Response Office; coordinator outlines work so far

(Update: Adding video, comments by county Commissioner Phil Chang, statement by Coordinator Cheyenne Purrington)

Office created last fall operating at 50% staff capacity

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Amid various efforts to tackle the homeless crisis in Deschutes County, a Deschutes County commissioner is expressing concern about slow progress so far by the Coordinated Houseless Response Office, created last year under House Bill 4123, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend.

The legislation's $1 million state grant to create a "coordinated homeless response system" lists the county and the cities of Bend, La Pine, Redmond and Sisters.

Last fall, Cheyenne Purrington was named to lead the new Coordinated Houseless Response Office. As Central Oregon's Houseless Strategies and Solutions director, she was brought aboard to work on a community-wide approach to addressing the issues.

According to Deschutes County County Commissioner Phil Chang, the response office is disorganized, and thus not making much progress.

"We need to look at the entire system, the staff, the governing board, and the advisory committee, and ask why we haven’t come up with a functioning organization yet?" Chang said.

The Coordinated Houseless Response Office, created about seven months ago, is meant to work in conjunction with an advisory board and a governing board to coordinate care and prioritize ways to address homelessness.

That includes a requirement in the law to develop a five-year strategic plan within a year of receiving the grant money.

“I am very concerned that the strategic plan has not been developed yet," Chang said.

Some of the initiatives in House Bill 4123 include supporting shelter capacity, promoting workforce expansion, identifying solutions for current homeless encampments, and helping to develop housing units for low-income residents.

“We have seen early drafts of the strategic plan, but it’s not as far along as I would like it to be," Chang said.

Gwenn Wysling, executive director of the Bethlehem Inn homeless shelter, received a draft of the plan.

"I think that the draft or plan really helps to integrate what the current state plan is, as well as the federal," Wysling said.

Chang said the governing board has barely met, while the advisory committee has yet to meet.

"The office is functioning without the benefit of a governing board and an advisory committee to both guide its actions and support it," Chang said.

The governing board is comprised of elected officials from cities and counties including Sisters City Councilor Andrea Blum, Redmond City Councilor Cat Zwicker, Bend City Councilor Megan Perkins, La Pine Mayor Daniel Lee Richer, and Deschutes County Commissioner Patti Adair as chair. 

"From my perspective, the governing board is where the buck stops," Chang said.

In a statement to NewsChannel 21, the director of the Coordinated Houseless Response Office, Cheyenne Purrington, said in part (full statement below): "One of the major challenges we've experienced with this office is the different expectations people have about our role and responsibilities. The office exists to help build a more coordinated and high performance, houseless response system. We’re a pilot office still in its startup phase, with only 50% staff capacity. Once we’re fully operational, we expect to generate more momentum.”

Regarding how the office has been operating so far, Chang said, “The office is responding reactively to a number of things that are happening in our community. One of the big things that the Coordinated Houseless Response Office has had to react to is the plans to implement clearings -- large-scale clearings at the runway exclusion zone, the Redmond Airport, east of 17th Street at east Redmond, and at Hunnell Road (in Bend).”

In this instance, Chang said, the office was helpful in identifying the needs of the homeless in those areas.

Wysling said, “I think the office, with the limited resources and frankly just the short period of time that it’s been in place, has tried to coordinate with many different agencies.” 

Meanwhile, the region is getting receiving $13.9 million to achieve its share of the state's emergency homeless and housing goals.

The Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council is accepting applications through next Monday from service providers seeking a share of those funds.   

Below is the full statement Cheyenne Purrington sent NewsChannel21 in response to questions:

Central Oregon is facing a worsening homelessness crisis. Recent Point-in-Time (PIT) Count data released by the Homeless Leadership Coalition (HLC) shows a 28% increase from last year, suggesting that the rate of increase is growing year over year. In terms of system performance, Central Oregon also lags behind other regions in Oregon on key metrics. For instance, our residents remain homeless for longer and re-enter homelessness sooner after being housed.

While we have many incredible efforts and success stories to highlight, these data points highlight the need to act differently, urgently, and at scale. Our Office will focus on proven strategies for improving system performance and supporting our many partners to act differently, urgently, and at scale.

One of the major challenges we’ve experienced with this Office is the different expectations people have about our role and responsibilities. As new office, it’s important that everyone understand what we’re here to do and how we’ll achieve that. The Office exists to help build a more coordinated and high performance houseless response system. That means we focus on promoting best practice solutions, connecting dots between components of the system, and addressing critical gaps in the system. We’re a pilot office still in its startup phase, with only 50% staff capacity. Once we’re fully staffed and operational, we expect to generate more momentum in strategic investments and system improvements.

The intention of these pilot offices was not to be joint offices which are becoming common in some larger metropolitan areas. Those offices usually consolidate resources and authority, such as bringing together the Continuum of Care (CoC), Public Housing Authority, and other revenue sources to empower collective impact and leadership. This Office doesn’t have any specific authority or control over system resources, which makes our primary role one of offering technical assistance, providing recommendations, and educating policymakers on proven solutions. We work closely with our partners to support the amazing work being implemented throughout the region. Central Oregon is blessed with an incredible community of service providers achieving success every single day, whether it’s supporting unsheltered individuals to access resources or helping vulnerable families secure long-term housing. Our Office sees our role as supporting and expanding those existing efforts to achieve positive impact at scale.

What have your efforts been to help the homeless community since you’ve taken on the role of Deschutes County Houseless Director? What have you accomplished? What’s still in the works?

Our Office was established to improve the overall performance of our response system and we do that by focusing on major strategic goals and initiatives, including: achieving quality data, expanding system access and equity, investing in service provider capacity, ensuring adherence to best practices, leveraging state and federal funding, expediting housing production, and increasing nonprofit owned- and -managed housing units.

One of our major achievements relates to the Governor’s emergency funding. Our Office played an instrumental role in communicating with both the outgoing and incoming Governor’s Office administrations to express the urgent need for resources to address the unsheltered crisis in Central Oregon. We also hosted initial discussions with regional partners and recommended that COIC serve as lead convener for the region. We continue to provide technical assistance to COIC’s leadership team as well as other partners throughout the region involved in the Multi-Agency Coordinating (MAC) process. We’re hopeful that the Governor’s funding package will help alleviate the crisis we’re facing and improve our overall system’s performance.

Another area we’re especially targeting is the issue of housing production. Historically, low-income housing is expensive and time-consuming to produce because of the need to secure public funding commitments in advance and the high cost of development. Those factors have caused a deficit of housing that’s affordable at the lowest income levels, for residents on fixed income or working minimum wage jobs. Our Office is leading efforts to invite for-profit developers such as Hayden Homes to the table, to leverage private capital into fast-tracked housing units that will then transfer to nonprofits for ongoing ownership and management. This represents a true cross-sector partnership that could transform how communities create sufficient pipelines of low-income housing stock.

What organizations/nonprofits are you working with?

We work with a range of organizations depending on the project, including through the Executive Order process which involves upwards of 25 representatives from regional agencies. We also support the existing efforts of groups like Homeless Leadership Coalition (HLC), especially around implementing best practices, expanding service provider capacity, and making targeted data investments. We work with organizations to help them align with regional strategic planning processes; for example, we worked closely with Bethlehem Inn’s Board of Directors and staff leadership on their strategic planning process, and are supporting grassroots efforts in Sisters to build more capacity for services and sheltering. Councilor Blum sits on the CHRO Board of Directors and has helped convene that group, which is a great example of public agency representatives working with nonprofit organizations to achieve collective impact. We have plans to expand our coordination capacity with more partners when our staff grows from 50% to 100%.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day for our office is about 10-12 hours long, usually from 8 am to 8 pm and often on weekends. On average, we’re in about 60-70% meetings and calls with partners, helping connect dots in the system. The remaining time we spend reviewing and preparing documents, project managing major initiatives, and providing feedback on proposed policies at the state and local levels. When we have time, our staff often meet partners at project sites or in the field. There’s really no typical day. Some examples from the last few months include:

· Secured medical supplies and coordinated client transportation for temporary winter shelter at First Presbyterian;
· Provided testimony and staff recommendations on various legislative efforts in Salem;
· Toured rural encampment areas with the Forest Service to discuss safety planning and resource needs;
· Provided guidance to public agencies to reduce harm, engage services, and promote best practices when addressing encampments;
· Presented at Joint Meetings between the Board of County Commissioners and Redmond, Sisters, and La Pine.

How does this job compare to what you were able to accomplish in your previous position in Tahoe?
I’ve worked with a number of communities and Central Oregon stands out for a few reasons. There’s a great sense of collaboration and support, which creates the right environment for success. Also, Central Oregon is set to receive a significant investment from the Governor’s Executive Order funding. In Tahoe, we reduced unsheltered homelessness by nearly 80% through acquisitions of supportive housing during the pandemic. I’m very optimistic that Central Oregon will make similar strategic investments in proven solutions that can scale so we can bend the curve on homelessness over the next 1-2 years. Right now, we’re working closely with partners to lay groundwork for a collective impact approach that improves overall system performance.

Article Topic Follows: Deschutes County

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Bola Gbadebo

Bola Gbadebo is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Bola here.


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