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Survey: Homelessness important issue in Southern Oregon

In a survey, Southern Oregon residents said they’re seeing more homeless people now than a year ago. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Most residents say problem has gotten worse

A new survey found homelessness is an important issue to 91% of Southern Oregonians, and 67% said they see more homeless people now than they did a year ago.

A total of 87% of people said they see a homeless person either every day or two to three times a week.

Three Southern Oregon organizations that manage Oregon Health Plan benefits commissioned the telephone survey by Moore Information Group, which contacted 400 residents in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Douglas and Curry counties. Residents of Jackson County, the most populous of the counties, represented 41% of the respondents.

“We had seen statewide concern on the issue, but we wanted to get specific Southern Oregon data to see if there is as much concern in our community as statewide. The numbers clearly show that there is,” said Josh Balloch, vice president of government relations and health policy for AllCare Health, one of the groups that helped pay for the survey.

Residents offered mixed opinions on the root causes of homelessness, with 22% pointing to high housing prices and a shortage of affordable housing. Another 22% said addiction, 16% cited mental illness and a lack of adequate treatment and 12% said lax vagrancy and drug laws.

Smaller percentages said homelessness is caused by the high cost of living, low wages, poor life choices and laziness on the part of homeless people, government handouts, a lack of jobs, destruction of homes by 2020 wildfires and homeless people intentionally moving to Southern Oregon.

When asked what their first choice would be to address homelessness, 36% of respondents said providing treatment for mental illness and addiction, 19% said providing subsidized affordable housing and 11% said providing temporary housing like tiny home projects.

Smaller percentages said their top choice would be to offer jobs and job training, provide housing with stipulations, such as having a job and getting treatment, or mandate treatment for mental illness or addiction. Others said society should stop offering handouts, enforce drug laws, remove campsites or kick people out of the community.

Balloch said the majority of residents appear to want a combination of aid for homeless people plus accountability.

“The data backs that up. Folks are happy to help people in need, but they expect them to put in effort as well,” he said.

Balloch said there are examples of programs in Southern Oregon that blend help and responsibility, such as tiny house communities.

Hope Village in Medford and Foundry Village in Grants Pass are gated tiny house developments supervised by on-site staff. Residents live in safe, secure little homes, share kitchen and bathroom facilities and work with community organizations to become more self-sufficient. They pay a monthly fee, with half the money going into a personal savings account for when they transition out of the tiny house village.

The survey found concern about a lack of affordable housing is widespread.

When asked whether they had ever struggled to pay their rent or mortgage in the past five years and feared losing their housing, 35% of survey respondents said they had.

A majority, 64%, said they pay more than 30% of their income toward household costs such as rent and utilities.

“A lot of people in our community are working their tails off to have a roof over their head. They want the same commitment from others,” Balloch said.

Respondents were divided on whether they were willing to pay more in local taxes to reduce homelessness in Southern Oregon, with 44% saying they were willing to pay more, 48% saying they were not and 8% saying they don’t know.

For some respondents, homelessness is a personal issue.

In the past five years, 9% said they had been without stable housing, 38% said they knew someone who had lacked stable housing and 4% said they — plus someone they knew — had been without stable housing.

Some survey respondents said certain people should be disqualified from government aid for housing. Respondents would disqualify people for being unwilling to work (73%), using drugs (46%) and abusing alcohol (37%). Only 15% said people with a criminal background should be disqualified, and just 4% said people with mental illness should be disqualified.

Balloch said the results of the survey will be compiled into a presentation and offered to community groups and local leaders.

“We’re happy to dive into the data,” he said.

Balloch said organizations that manage Oregon Health Plan benefits know that only a small part of a person’s health is determined by what happens at the doctor’s office. Housing, access to food, transportation and other factors play a significant role.

Unstable housing or homelessness can contribute to people developing multiple chronic illnesses, Balloch said.

AllCare Health and other organizations manage physical, mental and dental benefits while also helping to fund community housing projects and other services that improve people’s health.

“When it comes to the health of our members, housing is a critical component of that,” Balloch said.

In 2021, almost 30% of Oregonians were on Oregon Health Plan for low-income people, 15% were insured through Medicare for senior citizens, 51% had private insurance and almost 5% were uninsured, according to the Oregon Health Insurance Survey.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.