Ask the average person in Central Oregon what the most pressing issues we face here are, and chances are that they'll include housing and homelessness in their answers. With staggering rent increases and plenty of inflation, the number of people who don't have a proper place to live is skyrocketing. It's a problem so great that in 2022, state legislators took action by creating a pilot program aimed at helping local governments collaborate and pool resources on the issue. In Deschutes County, that program is called the Coordinated Houseless Response Office, one of eight such offices created under Rep. Jason Kropf's House Bill 4123.
Nine months into a two-year pilot, our local governments appear to be blowing it.
The executive director of the program announced her resignation late last month. While some allege that Cheyenne Purrington embellished her resume to get the position – one she took after the similar organization she led in Lake Tahoe encountered financial troubles – she can hardly be held accountable for all of the missteps thus far.
In a story we published last week, Bend City Councilor Megan Perkins told the Source Weekly that the City of Bend, Deschutes County and other Central Oregon city stakeholders had yet to even iron out a "roles and responsibilities" agreement that would define which entities were responsible for what. The board responsible for overseeing the Coordinated Houseless Response Office had only met a "few times," she said. Deschutes County Commissioner Patti Adair, the chair of the governing board, is responsible for putting those meetings together, and when asked, stated that each meeting was "lengthy and substantive." Yet nine months into a two-year pilot, the office has yet to accomplish some significant goals, including adopting an interim work plan or forming an advisory council. Purrington also argued in her resignation letter that her role was undefined, with little authority, and that her main role was responding to the clearing of camps rather than working on broader strategies and solutions. It appears this office cannot yet even agree on an approach, let alone in any strategy that actually sees people moving off the streets.
The spirit of the CHRO office was a good one, and it was supported at the state legislative level with $1 million to get it off the ground and to get an oversight board in place. But when the oversight board itself makes apparent missteps that stall progress and frustrate those who are actively working with those experiencing homelessness, it begs the question: Who's overseeing the overseers? And when they appear to be less-than-diligent stewards of government funds, who loses?
Situations like this only offer fodder for those in the community who believe that the solution for dealing with those experiencing homelessness is to either do nothing and spend nothing, in the hopes that a lack of humanitarian services will spur people to leave Central Oregon. That's hardly the approach this editorial board supports.
Some are now calling for the entire CHRO to be moved under the purview of the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, where the solutions posed can be regional ones rather than county ones.
Whatever the changes to come, they need to ensure more accountability among the local officials who are leading this charge, so as to help more people get housed faster and reduce the public safety concerns that exist when people live in unsafe and fire-prone conditions. If this is truly the number-one issue for Central Oregonians at this point in time, then Central Oregonians should be paying close attention and calling for proper governance.