Colleen Nelson

A thriving Union County requires a healthy workforce.

The health of each citizen is dependent upon certain baseline conditions being met. Safe, affordable, stable housing is essential to reaching this goal and must be in place even before such things as good nutrition, personal safety and access to health care can be achieved.

Many in Union County are struggling with basic housing needs.

Currently, 84 students identified as homeless are being served by the La Grande School District Youth in Transition Program (according to Scott Carpenter, director of educational programs, La Grande School District). More than 26 percent of Union County households are considered housing burdened, which means they spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing (according to the State of Oregon, based on U.S. census data).

There are no easy answers. The need for safe, affordable, stable housing is prevalent across the nation and is present right here in rural Eastern Oregon. To address this problem we must come together as organizational and governmental leaders and concerned residents to work on creative solutions. Collaboration is the way forward.

The first step is to listen carefully to those who are dealing with housing issues including those who are homeless, those who are housing insecure, social service providers, subsidized housing providers, landlords, tenants, contractors and government representatives. Local issues need local solutions. Success comes when we hear many voices, understand the issues from different points of view and act on what we hear.

As a pastor, I have had the opportunity to speak with people who come to the church for housing assistance.

I quickly learned La Grande had no place for people who need overnight shelter. The only option was one-night motel vouchers. Social service and subsidized housing providers shared that they were frustrated when they could not offer needed assistance to those I referred.

Last winter, a number of organizations, including Zion Lutheran Church, supported the Union County Warming Station in a two-month trial run. The station served 42 guests who stayed 263 total nights (according to Cami Miller, Warming Station director). It trained 80 community volunteers. It was a place for homeless persons to stay for a night and also a place to access support services. The Warming Station Advisory Board is in the process of securing a permanent location and hopes to offer services starting Nov. 15 this winter. This is a great example of a collaborative approach to a community issue.

When I tried to help a homeless couple gain access to safe, affordable rental housing, I learned that securing rental housing can be a costly and discouraging process requiring applications and fees for multiple landlords and agencies. A coordinated rental housing application process would have been a great benefit to us.

In working with the non-partisan collaborative Housing Matters Union County, I found a group of leaders willing to tackle this issue. Through their networking efforts, there is an improved path to help those seeking assistance and support. Housing Matters Union County is another collaborative venture working on solutions.

Who needs safe, affordable, stable housing in Union County? Everyone. Union County thrives when all residents are adequately housed. For many, wages have not kept up with housing costs. Safe, affordable, stable housing is workforce housing. Ensuring a stable workforce to provide services and amenities that make Union County great requires accessible housing.

These issues are only the tip of the iceberg. Here, as in the rest of Oregon, the critical shortage of housing has a negative impact on the whole community. Who gets access and how they are supported is only the beginning. The school district’s 84 homeless students are 84 example of people in need of a place to call home.

How will we work together to make plans and offer creative solutions so that all Union County residents will prosper? Are we willing to support one another across the public, private and non-profit sectors to create housing solutions that work for all? I am convinced that the path forward is through collaboration.

Editor’s Note: The Republican writer did not submit an On The Fence piece for this week’s topic