By Beth Lawrence
HERE in Jackson County’s goal is to get people off the streets into warm beds. Lately the nonprofit has been forced to leave some out in the cold.
The agency has seen increased calls for emergency housing under its Code Purple program over the last year.
“At one point in December of 2020, we had 44 hotel rooms rented, and requests continued to be called in to HERE’s office,” Director Bob Cochran said. “I’d made the comment to our office manager that if we’re not careful, we’re going to be at 35 rooms. We shot right past 35 rooms and we went to 44 rooms.”
Higher volume caused Cochran to make some hard but necessary decisions in December.
“We didn’t have a limit because the goal was to keep anybody from freezing to death in Jackson County,” he said.
When the numbers increased, Cochran realized paying for unlimited numbers of clients was “unsustainable.” Without some adjustments, the organization would run out of money by January.
“I presented a plan for the rest of the year that basically uses up the rest of the monies that we have right now,” he said. “Right now we can afford four 30 day rooms where we’re providing more intensive case management services and 15 Code Purple rooms.”
He devised that number by using National Weather Service statistics and adding a 35 percent buffer. HERE used all of the funds Cochran allocated for January even with the buffer.
Requests have grown for several reasons.
More than the usual number of freezing nights plays a part in the problem.
“In years past, we would only do Code Purple for one or two nights; and then, we would have several nights of nonfreezing weather,” he said. “This year we’ve had long stretches where we’ve had Code Purple clients in for 10, 11, 12 days at a time before we have a nonfreezing night.”
The COVID pandemic requires extra rooms because nonrelatives cannot be housed together in a small room.
Additionally, people come from other counties for emergency shelter when their home county lacks resources.
Lack of rental housing also contributes to the problem.
“Last year our shelter stay average was under 60 days because we were able to locate suitable housing for clients,” Cochran said. “With COVID and the eviction moratorium, the lack of available housing has made it more difficult to help shelter clients transition to permanent housing. Housing staff actively work to recruit landlords, but the general lack of rental unit availability has made this difficult.”
HERE spent $64,783 on hotel rooms in December, nearly $7,000 over the $57,872 total budget for emergency shelter hotel rooms in fiscal year 2018-19 in Jackson County.
Cochran estimates he has turned away six to 10 people a week.
Those clients sometimes turn to churches and other agencies in the county.
Others are forced to extreme means.
One family stayed in a tent in a relative’s back yard. HERE was able to give them space blankets wool socks and other warm clothing.
HERE has enacted the Back@Home program using CARES Act money to find rapid rehousing for many clients preventing as many of those scenarios as possible.