Umatilla County’s Homelessness Project

A coalition of western Umatilla County governments are planning for the future of the area’s homeless population, but those plans would have people staying at a former gravel quarry.

The effort to provide more shelter space while staying out of fraught conflicts with neighbors highlights issues arising in both urban and rural areas of Oregon where authorities are trying to address housing insecurity.

The cities of Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo partnered with Umatilla County and the nonprofit Stepping Stones Alliance in 2022 to start Project PATH, a transitional housing project that is slated to open later this summer. PATH – Practical Assistance Through Housing – represents a major expansion of local homeless services in a set of communities where resources can be limited.

The project is located in an isolated industrial area near a busy highway, accessible only by car and miles away from the city center in Hermiston or Umatilla. The location has created a new challenge of how to connect the population PATH is supposed to serve with a service center well removed from most homes and businesses.

The former gravel pit by the highway

Stepping Stones executive director Jesalyn Cole and Umatilla city manager Dave Stockdale attended a Feb. 27 Hermiston City Council meeting to report a hiccup in PATH’s plans.

“One of the things that’s been a little bit stickier than we had thought has been transportation,” Stockdale said.

The PATH site is located in a formerly unincorporated industrial area between Hermiston and Umatilla. The most direct route to the property is along U.S. Route 395, a four-lane highway outside of city limits.

The site has no connections to either city’s water or sewer system, so drilling a well and installing a septic system is a must. Stockdale said the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office is requiring a review for Indigenous artifacts and other cultural resources before PATH can begin groundwork.

“We’re not too surprised,” he said. “Although we are admittedly a little bit surprised considering that it’s been a DOGAMI-permitted gravel pit and blast area for decades and decades.”

In 2022, the Legislature granted the coalition $1 million for the project and Stepping Stones was able to raise additional money.

Initially formed in 2019, Stepping Stones is now responsible for addressing an issue that’s become a growing community concern in recent years.

According to a 2020 point-in-time count conducted by the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon, Umatilla County had 336 homeless people, with approximately 66 among the communities participating in PATH. While those numbers represented a dip from the year before, point-in-time counts often undercount how many people are unhoused in a community.

The former gravel pit wasn’t the only location considered for the sleep center.

Hermiston city manager Byron Smith said Stepping Stones was interested in a location within Hermiston city limits. But when a neighbor started voicing their concerns, the nonprofit started looking elsewhere.

Public demand for homeless services often runs into the reality of finding places amenable to hosting them. The Portland City Council approved a plan to establish six sanctioned homeless camps across the city in November, but Mayor Ted Wheeler didn’t announce the location of the first camp until earlier this month and still needs to finalize the lease.

Smith said PATH chose its location because it was able to work out a lease agreement for a piece of property owned by Umatilla County, while also avoiding upsetting Hermiston’s housed residents worried that the facility will invite crime and other social ills to their community.

“They’re not sure how it’s gonna affect their neighborhood,” he said. “And (they’re) valid concerns. We tried to find a place that might be less intrusive.”

To address the remote location, Cole pointed to a shuttle Stepping Stones operates to take residents to the existing sleep center. She anticipates it will transfer over to the new site. The coalition is also in talks with Kayak Public Transit, a regional bus service, to establish a bus stop near the future sleep center.

The need to build a bigger shelter space in this part of Umatilla County is due in part to a lack of transitional and permanent housing in the area.Spurred by rapid industrial growth, Hermiston and other western Umatilla County communities are growing steadily. Hermiston assistant city manager Mark Morgan said the city is dedicated to building more housing to keep up with growth. But the word city officials are hearing from developers is that it’s more profitable to build in larger areas like Bend and Washington’s Tri-Cities area than it is in Hermiston.

The model project

Cole specifically cited the Walla Walla Sleep Center as a model for PATH, but the first attempt at establishing a new space for Walla Walla’s unhoused residents didn’t go well.

The small southeastern Washington city opened a sanctioned camp in 2016 near a golf course. A brutal winter combined with a lack of support from the city led local officials to call it “Camp Chaos” and “a place of lawlessness.”

But Walla Walla kept at it, partnering with the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless to start the Walla Walla Sleep Center. The center built dozens of Conestoga huts at a new location and added permanent staff, creating a model Umatilla County hopes to replicate.

Walla Walla Alliance executive director Jordan Green said the center is now at capacity with 55 residents. Money from COVID-19 assistance funds allowed the sleep center to operate 24 hours per day, a move Green said helped transition 38 people into housing last year.

While the Conestoga huts contain few amenities besides enclosed shelter, Green said the alliance is building larger huts with features like electricity, heating and cooling as transitional housing. He said the new huts are meant to prevent residents from falling into a “demotivational cycle” while they try to penetrate Walla Walla’s tight housing market.

“We hope these huts will feel like a possibility,” he said.

Green said the Walla Walla Alliance has fielded inquiries not just from nearby communities like Hermiston but also as far as Sweet Home in the Willamette Valley and multiple cities in Central Washington.

Although similar, there are some differences in the way Walla Walla operates and how PATH plans to run its site. Walla Walla’s Conestoga huts form the basic tier of shelter at its facility, with its larger huts acting as transitional housing. At PATH, plans call for a 60-bed congregate facility for regular stays while the Conestoga huts will serve as transitional housing.

Like Walla Walla, PATH will have a 24-hour navigation center where staff will connect residents with services like GED education and job applications.

The Walla Walla center is located toward the outskirts of town in an industrial area, like its future counterpart in Hermiston. But Green said the compactness of Walla Walla worked in their favor. The center has a bus stop nearby and is accessible by bicycle, allowing the center to refurbish donated bikes and give them to residents.

PATH is looking to put itself on a similar trajectory as Walla Walla, but determining access to its sleep center is still a work in progress.

A new PATH

Cole has only been on the job for a month, but she’s already catching up on Stepping Stone’s short history.

She said the nonprofit formed in 2019 to take over the Hermiston warming station, a seasonal operation that began in a church basement before hopscotching around town to several different locations. But Stepping Stones set its ambition beyond seasonal beds for the area’s unhoused residents.

Stepping Stones currently operates a 30-bed shelter each night regardless of the weather, and employs six paid staff along with more than 30 volunteers. The organization hired Cole, a former downtown association director in Eastern Washington, to be its first director last month

Cole said Stepping Stones averages about 16 guests per night at its current facility, but it’s also not the only option. Martha’s House in Hermiston specifically serves unhoused women and families and it usually hosts eight to 13 families at any given time, according to manager Stephen Boulton.

Boulton said the waitlist for low-income housing is long enough that some families need to stay at the shelter while they wait for spaces to open up. Martha’s House also tends to attract women and children escaping domestic violence.

“They have nowhere to go,” he said. “They’re at a point in their life where they’re doing everything they can to get away.”

While Stepping Stones may have grown, it’s facing some limitations in its current space. Its sleep center is in the backroom of an agricultural labor company, and with that business needing space soon, Stepping Stones will need to move its beds, furniture and supplies to the building’s warehouse.

The Hermiston area’s homeless services have come a long way from the church’s basement. Even though access to the shelter is still a work in progress, PATH still represents one of the most ambitious homelessness projects in a region where seasonal warming shelters are often the ceiling. Whatever challenges that lay ahead, Cole said PATH represents “big dreams” for the people of the area.

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-by Antonio Sierra – OPB