Sharon Newell: Locally funded rent voucher is a lifesaver

Sharon Newell was out of options -- and quickly running out of hope.

Months after moving back to Portland last year, the 67-year-old was struggling to find a safe and affordable home -- a place that wouldn’t make her sick.

Newell has multiple sclerosis, which can limit her mobility. She also has chemical sensitivities and autoimmune issues that can sometimes trigger seizures. She couldn’t stay with friends or family for too long without feeling ill. And when she tried renting on her own, her Social Security check wouldn’t stretch far enough for a place that wouldn’t set off her symptoms.

By last December, her health was so compromised -- after near-daily seizures in some stretches, and a brush with sepsis -- that Newell’s doctor warned that her life was on the line.

Newell was ready to give up. But Northwest Pilot Project, an agency that helps seniors leave the streets or never have to lose their housing in the first place, renewed her hope just in time.

This winter, Newell was one of the first seniors to receive a new locally funded, long-term rent voucher --through a pilot program supported by Multnomah County, Northwest Pilot Project, Meyer Memorial Trust and Home Forward. The voucher ensures Newell, along with 40 other households with a senior, can bridge the gap between their rising rents and their fixed incomes.

Today, she has a clean, vibrant apartment all to herself, with room for her family photos and lifetime of possessions, and her beloved service dog, Gracie. And she’s getting her health back -- freed from the stress of having to choose between rent or pet food or medicine.  

“I was amazed,” Newell says. “I couldn’t believe it. This was a lifesaver.”

Meyer Memorial Trust contribution points to program’s future

And thanks to fresh funding from Meyer Memorial Trust, that voucher program may one day get a chance to save hundreds more lives. The nonprofit has matched the County’s $350,000 investment with $150,000 of its own.

Chair Deborah Kafoury announced the donation as part of her State of the County speech Friday, March 16.

Meyer’s contribution will help with administrative costs and pay for a study of the pilot program by the Center for Outcomes Research and Education. That analysis will guide any improvements, and compare outcomes for voucher recipients against seniors overall.

The review also will help answer how the program can grow to help potentially hundreds more people pay their rent as part of a larger plan to address chronic homelessness. Chair Kafoury also announced plans to invest additional resources from hotel taxes in housing and support services.

Among the questions to answer: What would it cost to rapidly expand the number of vouchers available? Who would manage that larger program? And could local vouchers help Multnomah County and Portland achieve their shared goal of creating 2,000 supportive housing units by 2028?

“I hope that by the end of the year we will be able to make a clear financial commitment that will buy down rents for hundreds of seniors, veterans and families,” Kafoury said during the speech.

That effort comes at the same time as the federal government, which traditionally funded public housing and housing vouchers, is threatening to accelerate a decades-old trend of walking back from its responsibility to keep people on the margins housed and alive.

It also comes as the number of people 55 and older experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County continues to rise. In the 2017 Point in Time count, the number of seniors counted as homeless reached 816, rising faster than the number of people experiencing homelessness overall.

Bobby Weinstock, the housing advocate at Northwest Pilot behind the idea for a local voucher, has estimated it would take an additional $7.6 million, beyond the nearly $60 million that Portland and Multnomah County invest in the Joint Office of Homeless Services, to help 1,000 seniors obtain vouchers.

"The way forward on homelessness is to find new ways to make rent affordable for the lowest income individuals and families in our community,” Weinstock said. “Working together, we are fully capable of reducing the cost of housing for our most vulnerable neighbors."

“She gave me hope that I didn’t have”

Newell thought she had a safe place to stay when she moved back to Portland from Springfield in April 2017. But by the time she got to Portland, she learned it was no longer available. A friend offered to let Newell stay with her. It didn’t work out, in light of Newell’s health issues.

“I could not live at her house,” she said. “I was getting sicker and sicker.”

Moving out kicked off months of illness and uncertainty. She stayed with family, but still had seizures. For a little while, she said, she found a place to live with another senior, and her symptoms ebbed. But after four months, the woman had to move to a care center, and Newell was back looking for a place of her own.

“I had seizures every day,” she said.

At times, she said, her service dog, Gracie, took care of her. Gracie, a 4-year-old chihuahua-dachshund (or a “chi-weenie,” as Newell put it), is trained to recognize when Newell is about to have a seizure or when her MS is flaring and she needs to sit down. Gracie also knows to wake Newell up.

Newell’s housing search led her to Northwest Pilot Project last year. Housing specialist Lila Pearman, working with Newell's doctor, tried to help Newell find places she could afford without getting sick. It wasn’t easy.

Sometimes an apartment that seemed promising would have too many stairs. Or the drapes or carpets would cause her symptoms to flare. Newell was receiving a few hundred dollars a month from Northwest Pilot. But without the full voucher she started receiving in February, Newell still had hardly anything left in her bank account after paying rent.

She said she’d go from church to church to get food boxes, mixing and matching packaged items that were safe for her to eat. The stress was contributing to her poor health.

Finally, in January, Pearman called Newell to say she’d been enrolled in the new voucher program. Soon after, they found the apartment she’s living in today, a bright ground-floor unit in a duplex with wooden floors and a side yard for Gracie to explore.

“They were so wonderful to me,” Newell said of Pearman and Northwest Pilot Project. “She was this light in this dark tunnel. She gave me hope that I didn’t have. I had given up.”

“I can survive now,” she added, “without the stress of not having food or having to take care of my Gracie or to buy the medicine I need.”

A future for vouchers outside Multnomah County?

Subsidies provided as part of the local voucher pilot will average $700. Northwest Pilot Project will keep a roster of 40 seniors or households that include a senior, working to provide case management and doing outreach with landlords to find units. Home Forward, the region’s housing authority, has agreed to manage the vouchers alongside its large portfolio of federally funded vouchers.

Among the innovations they’ve already made is a shorter application process. Federal vouchers, said Laura Golino De Lovato, director of Northwest Pilot Project, come with reams and reams of paperwork and take weeks. 
Applications for the local vouchers amount to a few sheafs of paper and take roughly 10 days to process. That timing can make a difference between a bed in an apartment or a mat in a shelter for a senior looking to find another place to live.

“Home Forward has been administering voucher programs for decades and we're thrilled to use our established systems to help deliver this new and desperately needed source of rent assistance for Multnomah County,” said Michael Buonocore, Home Forward’s executive director. “We're grateful for the community advocacy and for the political leadership that made this possible.”

Golino De Lovato said the pilot has also attracted interest from Care Oregon and housing services provider JOIN, as a way to help chronically homeless neighbors leave the streets and get the support services they need.

She hopes an expanded pilot could serve as a national template to provide supportive housing and help for seniors. Meyer Memorial Trust’s investment, she said, could help create a toolkit that Multnomah County can share with other communities.

“There is a great deal of evidence that rent subsidies are very cost effective and reduce homelessness,” she said. “The pilot is small, but it is a solid action we are taking to expand access to rent subsidies in this community. It will allow us to lay the groundwork for the program and scale it up to provide permanent rent assistance to many more individuals and families who can't afford the rent.”

Newell, holding Gracie in her lap on a recent sunny weekday, said she never expected to face homelessness and housing insecurity before a series of family tragedies left her with few options.

“It was humbling. I met a lot of people I wouldn’t have ever met,” she said. “God put me here for a reason.”

And for a while last year, she said, she didn’t expect she’d even be alive to see things turn around.

“I’m glad,” she said. “I never expected to still be here.”