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Homeless outreach in Uniontown takes shape

August 24, 2018
In The News

Verda Heilman realized she was kicking herself out of her own home when she voted with other members of the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority Board this year to sell a former boarding house in Uniontown to a nonprofit that plans homeless outreach.

Heilman was the last of the building’s residents to find a place to live after the sale was finalized. But, she said in July even as she struggled to find a new home, “It’s going to a good project. … As much as I didn’t want to move, it’s for the best of the community.”

Helping Hands is expected to open the new facility on Oct. 1. The nonprofit operates re-entry programs across four counties in Oregon for people trying to get back on their feet after being homeless or struggling with addiction, and was looking to expand its reach in Clatsop County.

The nonprofit already maintains an office and housing in Seaside, but an Astoria location puts people closer to social services, county offices, Circuit Court and the transit center.

“We’re actually a little bit ahead of schedule,” said Alan Evans, the executive director of Helping Hands.

Still, the Uniontown project and the nonprofit have faced a few setbacks and surprises along the way.

Helping Hands had hoped to be able to provide detox beds in partnership with the county, but that plan is on hold because of funding and other issues.

“What we don’t want to do is move forward without all the right funding and partners in place,” Evans said.

Teresa Sims, the housing authority’s deputy director, included Helping Hands in a list of complaints against housing authority director Todd Johnston and the agency. Sims has been on administrative leave since May pending the results of an investigation after other employees lodged complaints against her.

In a claim Sims filed with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, she alleges Helping Hands interfered with her duties as supervisor of the Section 8 housing program. She was also concerned that Helping Hands and the housing authority were misusing federal funds, she said.

Scott Lee, the chairman of the housing authority board and the county commission, calls Sims’ claims “baseless.”

Evans said her accusations have not hindered Helping Hands, but the nonprofit is steering clear of the drama.

“We don’t understand any of the complaints,” Evans said, adding that Helping Hands has always been transparent about what it does and what it provides. He emphasized that the organization’s relationship with the housing authority has always been professional.

The Uniontown project comes at a time when Astoria and other cities in Clatsop County struggle with how to address a growing homeless population, scant resources to address mental health and addiction issues for people with little or no income, and a shortage of affordable housing.

Helping Hands is not the only group hoping to fill the gaps. Bill Van Nostran, pastor at Astoria’s First Presbyterian Church, hopes to soon provide workforce housing to people like those graduating from Helping Hands’ outreach in Astoria.

Van Nostran thinks of the city’s housing issues in terms of levels. People living on the streets are at level zero; people who find occasional overnight shelter at the Astoria Warming Center in bad weather are at level one; people going through re-entry programs at Helping Hands would be at level two. His church could provide level three.

“And there seems to be a gap in Astoria right now and that’s a niche we hope to fill,” Van Nostran said.

First Presbyterian is looking for a vacant building downtown to create affordable and low-income housing. Van Nostran says it is a logical progression in the church’s ministry. The church already provides an emergency food pantry. Van Nostran serves on the warming center’s board and the church supports the emergency shelter with financial contributions and volunteer hours.

A housing project would fall in line with “our quest to continue doing ministry outside the walls of the church,” he said.

Helping Hands’ leaders pride themselves on the relationships they have developed with landlords and housing programs to place graduates from re-entry programs into permanent housing. Evans and Raven Brown, the nonprofit’s development director, are confident they will be able to continue placing people in Astoria after the Uniontown building comes online.

But, they said, they are glad people like Van Nostran are trying to come up with creative solutions to increase affordable housing options.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici visited the Uniontown project in July. The Oregon Democrat asked Evans how she could help and he stressed the importance of advocacy.

The nonprofit does not receive federal funding. Because its facilities do not qualify as emergency shelters or low-income housing, it does not meet the data processing criteria from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Evans said. 

“We don’t fit neatly in one category,” Evans said. “The criteria has to change a little bit for us to be able to do this. It’s so far out of the focus of what we do.”

Nonetheless, the congresswoman seemed impressed with the project. 

“This looks like it was made for what you’re doing,” Bonamici said. “This place is huge.”

Helping Hands plans to host a community open house at the Uniontown building on Sept. 29 so people can see the work that’s been done and learn more about the programs offered.

Jack Heffernan contributed to this report.