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Service agencies see homelessness soar

With state funding cuts, rising housing prices, low-paying jobs and sketchy public transportation, Jackson County's homeless population has increased 29 percent over the last five years, a consortium of service providers said Thursday.

In one 24-hour period in November, agencies counted more than 900 individuals seeking services who said they were homeless. In 1998, the number was just short of 700.

That's a lot of people, said Connie Saldano of Rogue Valley Council of Governments. The problem is growing because this is a low-wage, high-rent area, the fifth least affordable area in the U.S., and a lot of services have just been drastically cut off.

The homeless numbers were released at a news conference called Thursday by 22 agencies of the Homeless Task Force of the Jackson County Community Services Consortium.

Ed Angeletti of ACCESS Inc. said the current slack economy is likely to spin many more people into homelessness through loss of jobs and income as well as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and mental health problems that often accompany financial stress.

We need good jobs at a living wage, decent, safe, affordable housing and deposits for people to get into rentals, said Angeletti. The community drives the process and Jackson County is unique in stepping up to the plate. We've seen an 11 percent increase in donations at ACCESS (since state cuts following the defeat of Measure 28); however, we've also seen a 15 percent increase in demand for services.

Virginia Gallegos, 26, who described herself as a homeless and disabled mother of a 4-year-old girl, told the news conference she has six evictions on her record and is unable to rent. The rent here is quite high and, as for finding a decent place that's affordable, forget it.

Laurie Davis, 39, who said she is a homeless and mentally disabled mother of two teenage boys, said she was surviving by painting apartments in exchange for rent, but the owner recently got a property manager.

It's gotten scary, she said. With the cutbacks, I don't get the therapy that helped me a lot. I don't feel sorry for myself, but life is hard.

Cynthia Huntington, 22, said she's couch surfing (sleeping on couches of friends or strangers) since her &

36;314 a month in general assistance was stopped because of state funding cuts Feb. 1. She can't find a job because of mental disorders, she said.

Strategies for helping the homeless need to be enacted now, said Rich Rohde of Oregon Action, citing as examples living wage ordinances in cities (already adopted in Ashland) and a viable affordable housing program.

We're beginning a wave of homelessness now, he said. We've been hit with the triple whammy ' a lack of decent paying jobs, lack of affordable housing and huge cutbacks in state funds.

Displaced teens have no shelter in the valley now, said Carolyne Ruck of Community Works.

Increasingly, kids are hungry, said Mandy Martin of StreetWise (part of Community Works). She cited a rise in drug use among teens, mainly alcohol and methamphetamines.

Drug addiction is a big factor (of homelessness), agreed Jill Munn of the Interfaith Care Community. The Oregon Health Plan doesn't offer treatment anymore, so it's going to flood the hospitals and use up a lot of the money these people need to live.

John Darling is a free-lance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

the numbers

The number of homeless people in Jackson County has risen 29 percent in the last five years, according to the Homeless Task Force.

1998: 692

1999: 690

2000: 838

2001: 880

2002: 969