Updated: Mar 12, 2020
The Columbia Gorge is full of passionate people dedicated to community health and health equity. This is the third in a series of “spotlights” on community members tackling these issues in unique and inspiring ways. No matter how it may feel at times, we are not doing this work alone.
In her last year studying environmental law at Lewis & Clark Law School, Karen Long realized she actually didn’t want to be a lawyer. Environmental law was science-based, and Karen wanted her career to have more of a human connection. As part of her practicum, Karen worked with the Portland-based Community Development Law Center (now the Small Business Legal Clinic). While there, she worked on a public-private partnership with the Mid-Columbia Housing Authority (MCHA) to develop the affordable housing residence Hood River Crossing. Karen liked the regulatory and policy components of this work, and she got to work directly with the community.
When her now husband got a job in the Gorge, Karen approached the director of MCHA and expressed interest in working there. She was hired initially as an assistant to the director, and worked her way up through four different positions before becoming Community Services and Special Program Manager.
Now, Karen’s work is varied: she attends about 10 community meetings per month representing MCHA. She also has her own caseload of 40 families who she meets with quarterly. She supervises several staff, manages budgets and funding requests, and continuously works on how to expand MCHA programs and collaborate with community partners.
The Gorge is a difficult place to find affordable, long-term housing for those who live and work here. According to the 2019 Columbia Gorge Regional Community Health Assessment, 27% of all households spend more than half of their income on housing, and for low income households, 53% of all income goes to housing. This is a big burden when you factor in other expenses like utilities, groceries, gas, and childcare.
Karen explained that the reasons behind housing challenges in the Gorge are manifold. From the perspective of MCHA, there is not enough investment on the federal level for housing. There is often far greater need than available Housing Choice Vouchers, which are federally funded and also known as Section 8 or HUD. For those who do have vouchers, there is often a lack of available housing stock. Additionally, many people have trouble finding housing due to rental history, criminal history, poor credit, or the inability to come up with a deposit, which can often be several thousand dollars.
MCHA has several lines of business that help the community find safe, stable, and affordable housing. First, MCHA administers vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. Secondly, Columbia Cascade Housing Corporation, the development arm of MCHA, builds and manages affordable housing units, and now has a portfolio nearing 400 units throughout the five counties it serves.
The third program, Resident Services, is managed by Karen and serves over 100 households in any given month. Through the Family Self-Sufficiency program, Karen and her colleagues work with clients to create action plans and set goals related to income, education, health and finances to achieve self-sufficiency and independence from social service programs.
MCHA also administers programs on asset building and financial education, like the Valley Individual Development Account Program (VIDA). VIDA is a matched savings program where every dollar saved by a participant is matched by $3. Upon completing the program, participants save $3000, are matched $9000, and then have $12,000 to invest in either homeownership, building a business, or education or job training. In 2020, MCHA will offer 25 financial education classes (in English and Spanish) on budgeting, credit and debt.
MCHA’s fourth line of business is in the area of homeownership. MCHA offers a first time home buyer class called the ABC’s of Home Buying (in English and Spanish), down payment assistance programs, and foreclosure prevention services. The agency is also looking into Community Land Trusts as an option to make homeownership affordable for more people.
To address the issue of prohibitive deposits, Karen and her team at MCHA received a grant from Meyer Memorial Trust to create a deposit lending program. MCHA loans participants up to $1200 for a deposit, which they pay back interest free. This has enabled many individuals to secure housing that otherwise would have been unaffordable.
Over the last several years, Karen and MCHA have partnered with health care agencies to address shared goals. For example, MCHA works with Mid Columbia Center for Living on a state-funded housing voucher program called Housing Access and Supports to serve individuals with severe and persistent mental illness who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This program included a caseworker to help individuals stay stably housed, which proved critical.
While the Bridges to Health Pathways program was in its development phase, housing kept coming up in the regional community health assessments (CHAs). Karen worked closely with the Columbia Gorge Health Council to develop expectations and goals for the program around housing as well as to secure the program’s first substantial funding through a Meyer Memorial Trust grant designed to support innovative programs linking health and housing. The Bridges to Health Pathways Program embeds Community Care Coordinators (CCCs) in local agencies in order to improve access to services and empower the community to improve their overall wellbeing.
“Now we have two community health workers [Community Care Coordinators] and their main focus at our agency is to work with people who have vouchers,” Karen said. “They attend briefings where people get their voucher and they stand up and say, ‘If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, we’re here to help you, here’s my card, let’s set up an appointment’ and then they help guide people through the process of finding housing and staying stably housed’.”
Prior to this partnership with MCCFL and B2H, Karen saw clients cycling through housing due to barriers like not being able to read, or simply not getting paperwork in or inspections done on time. The importance of community health workers cannot be overstated, as they are trusted members of the community working to empower clients and connect them with available resources.
One elderly gentleman in particular had been living out his vehicle for several years and staying at the Hood River Warming Shelter. He was always caring and positive, and when a Shelter Host encouraged him to talk to a B2H Community Care Coordinator, he did. Through the Bridges to Health Pathways Program, this individual began receiving the support he needed to reach his personal goals. He’s now living in a warm, comfortable apartment in Hood River, in walking distance of his physical therapy office.
Collaborating with the health care sector has also given Karen a chance to spread the word about the work she does. “I think another piece of why it’s been great to participate in the Pathways program is because we have the opportunity to go out to all of these new community partners that we didn’t typically partner with in the past like the health departments. Now we can tell people about the work that we’re doing.”
For Karen, a healthy, equitable, and thriving community is full of people of all income levels. “To me it’s a place where people of all incomes can live where they want to live.”
“We hear a lot at community meetings, ‘The Gorge is a popular place to live, and if you grew up here or you work here, you should have an affordable place to call home regardless of your income level.”