For a few hours every week, after filling out job applications from his home computer, he routinely stands near either entrance to the Safeway in Forest Grove with his cardboard sign and asks for help.
“I’d rather have a job,” Tom said bluntly. “And I look for work every day.”
After two years with Forest Grove circuit board manufacturer Westak, Tom (not his real name) was let go last year and has been unemployed since.
Sometimes Tom gets donations, he said, which help him to cover the $700 monthly rent for his one-bedroom apartment. But most often, people will curse at him, call him names and tell him to get a job.
Yet Tom can’t simply settle for an opening anywhere, and he lacks the higher education and qualifications to obtain a well-paying position. “Minimum wage jobs don’t cover my bills,” he said, and he’s already getting help from his parents — who don’t know he panhandles at all.
A Washington County census conducted in January 2015 found a 35 percent average increase in one-bedroom rents since 2012, which collides with an already-low 2 percent average vacancy rate in rental housing. And confirming Tom’s dilemma, the study also found that although the county’s unemployment rate has dropped from 9 percent in 2009 to 4 percent in 2015, more than one-third of available jobs pay lower-end wages.
“The economic landscape has changed significantly since the recession late last decade,” said Philip Bransford, communications officer for Washington County. “Although homelessness has actually declined over the last several years, home affordability and poverty have both worsened.”
Following the 2008 recession, the number of cost-burdened housing units in the county — individuals and families where 30 percent or more of their household income pays for housing — increased by 8,500 units, for a total estimate of nearly 40,000 cost-burdened units, Bransford said.
“Our poverty rate has risen by nearly three percentage points, from an average of 9.4 percent between 2006 and 2008 and to an average 11.8 percent between 2010 and 2014,” he continued. “By this measure, 15,635 more individuals are facing poverty in post-recession Washington County. One bright side is that the number of homeless individuals has dropped from the peak of 1,383 in 2010 to this year’s 595.”
Still, Bransford said, “some of the most difficult cases remain among the chronically homeless, homeless veterans [who make up 13 percent of Washington County homeless persons] and those struggling with addiction or mental illness [14 percent and 21 percent, respectively] or both.”
A dirty, sweat-stained baseball cap covers the man’s face, blocking the midday sun.
Lying on the bench in front of Premier Community Bank on Main Street in downtown Hillsboro, his soft snoring blends with the sounds of people and cars passing by.
When the sun becomes too hot, he moves to the sidewalk and continues his slumber as pedestrians walk around him — still taking little notice he’s there.
When approached, he asks only to use a phone. He looks like he’s been roughing it for some time, but offers no details for how he got there or where he’s going. He doesn’t even want to share his name.
He’s homeless, that much is clear, and after a short time he picks up his bag and moves along — but he never really leaves.
“We are completely aware of what is happening in our cities and county as a whole,” said Washington County Homeless Coordinator Annette Evans. But, “until we can address housing issues, we will continue to have homelessness.”
“Permanent housing is the priority,” Bransford added. “It’s not about building more shelters or getting people into the shelters we have. That’s a symptom. We’re trying to get at the root of the problem.”
That’s where Community Connect comes into play.
A single-point-of-entry phone intake service, Community Connect is composed of more than 20 agencies covering a broad range of service needs for homeless youth, veterans and families and people at imminent risk of becoming homeless.
Business owners and citizens throughout the county have been encouraged to distribute the Community Connect phone number — listed on a simple, bilingual lime-green card — to panhandlers in lieu of money, and to anyone else who appears to be homeless.
After connecting to a Community Action of Washington County operator, the caller is interviewed and scheduled to meet with a community resource advocate so their specific needs can be identified and addressed.
The interview responses are then logged through the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which shares individual information so callers aren’t required to share their stories more than once — which Evans identified early-on as a barrier for many people who seek assistance.
And for those who don’t own or have direct, easy access to a phone, four homeless drop-in centers in Washington County (see info box) will allow people who need to contact Community Connect to use the offices’ phones, as well as make contact with homeless outreach workers and community partners that serve the homeless, Evans said.
“Our approach has been to collaborate and establish partnerships to strategically leverage the public’s resources across not only the county organization, but also other public agencies and the nonprofit community,” Bransford said. “Nonprofits have the flexibility to locate their services throughout the county based on their analysis of demand for service and other operational considerations. Our nonprofit partners are also leveraging county funds with grants, private donations and other sources of revenue so that we are collectively bringing coordinated, cost-effective service to those most in need.”
For more information on Community Connect, visit Washington County’s official website at bit.ly/1TNHXbE or call 503-640-3263 for service.