Washington County has eliminated homeless encampments

Rachel Haas

“These dogs are my world,” said Rachel Haas, pictured with Kiara, who she’s had for more than 15 years. “I think my life would end if something were to happen to them.” Haas, 44, saw Kiara being born. Heaven, scampering in from the living room, has been with Haas for two years. March 21, 2024.Beth Nakamura

Washington County leaders say they have achieved what many communities throughout the country are working to do: eliminate homeless encampments.

Using their share of the tri-county area’s Metro homelessness services tax, intended to fund supportive housing, shelter, eviction prevention and behavioral health care, they built a homelessness services system from the ground up.

Over the past two years, the a significant part of the money has gone to establishing 90 tiny homes at three locations and other shelters, which in turn allowed outreach workers to eliminate the county’s seven large and medium-sized encampments by moving those campers into the collective 380 new shelter beds.

The county also experienced a near-instant ten-fold increase in housing vouchers to cover or subsidize unhoused people’s rent for a few months to a couple years or even permanently.

It was the first time the county had the resources to begin filling in gaps needed to help their hundreds of unhoused residents.

To be sure, Washington County’s homeless population is significantly smaller than Multnomah County’s – hundreds of people versus thousands. But the county’s successes provide a glimmer of hope regarding what many have come to feel is an intractable problem. Elements of its approach could provide a roadmap for other struggling communities.

Washington County’s largest initial expansion was growing the number of shelter beds from 46 to 426 over two years. In the next two years, leaders plan to ramp up their supportive housing programs with just as much ambition.

It’s not that Washington County has completely eliminated unsheltered housing. With 773 homeless individuals counted during the federally mandated January 2023 count, about 200 people still sleep outside on a typical night, many in cars or RVs. But with hundreds of people sheltered and hundreds more housed in the past year, unsheltered homelessness has become much more rare.

As of December, Washington County had spent nearly 40% the $86 million in Metro homelessness tax proceeds it budgeted to spend this fiscal year, which ends in June. Additionally, the county put $31 million in reserves and received an additional $65 million in unanticipated revenue.

By contrast, Multnomah County has faced criticism for spending less than 25% of its budgeted homelessness tax proceeds by the halfway point of the fiscal year, leaving about $150 million unspent, even as city officials and others clamored for more housing vouchers and tiny home clusters.

Voters approved the 10-year homeless services measure, including its tax on high-income earners and big businesses in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, in May 2020. Counties began receiving money from the tax in July 2021.

Of the three counties, Washington County has so far spent its budget at the quickest pace over the past year.

“Washington County has done great work implementing the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure and is making great progress meeting the expectations of the voters who approved the measure in 2020,” said Metro spokesperson Nick Christensen in a statement.

Christensen said Metro appreciates that the county set aside robust reserves as well, ensuring money will be there for future years when the tax may generate less revenue.

Molly Rogers, Washington County’s housing director, is proud of how much progress her team has notched. “In 2024, the vast majority of (encampments) are closed or reduced to occasional pockets of unsheltered individuals. Thanks to the Supportive Housing Services measure, we have funded a team of outreach workers who connect these individuals to shelter, services, and long-term housing that meet people where they are at.”


In 2023, Rachel Haas was one of about 57 people living at the sprawling Highway 47 encampment near Forest Grove city limits. Jes Larson, Washington County assistant director of homeless services, described it as the biggest in the county with the individuals who had lived outside the longest.

Now, Haas is one of about seven former camp residents who live in homes of their own, while another 50 or so have been sheltered, chiefly in tiny homes or motels.

Just one person who was forced from the land did not accept services, officials said.

“I was at Highway 47 for about a year but had been homeless for 3 ½ years total,” said Haas, who has lived in an apartment for nearly a year. “I call my outreach worker my angel because if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be out there.”

Haas said she had a hard time trusting people after feeling let down by the system for so long. But she had even a harder time living unhoused with epilepsy and two small dogs to care for.

“(My worker) kept telling me to open up to her and she would help, and after a while I did. And though I initially thought she wouldn’t really help, she proved me wrong,” Haas said. “I’ve never lived by myself before and now I am doing it as someone with a disability and I am proud of myself.”

With the help of the homelessness tax revenue, Haas was placed in supportive housing. She now lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a little fenced in porch for her two dogs to enjoy. While her rent is $1,800, she is responsible for just $98.

With a disability income of $734 a month, that leaves room for other household expenses, including bills, food and care for her dogs, a 15-year-old chihuahua-mix named Kiara and a 3-year-old pug-mix named Heaven.

Rachel Haas

Rachel Haas watches a cooking show in her apartment, March 21, 2024.Beth Nakamura

“I’d honestly give up my whole paycheck just for the apartment and electricity and I’d figure something else out for food,” she said. “That’s how much I never want to experience the streets again … Life is a lot less stressful … I have never been more happier and I am not so depressed.”

And Kiara and Heaven love the apartment more than life in a tent as well, she said, since “they aren’t freezing all the time.”

Prior to the new funding, Washington County outreach workers could only offer people snacks and water. Virtually no shelter was available, and other county and city workers didn’t know who to call when someone required assistance or a bed.

“Outreach workers have had these jobs for decades,” Larson said. “Engagement was giving people a bus ticket to a Portland shelter if you were a single adult … Now, we know how to get people into shelter, how to enroll people into housing programs, how to do assessments and how to track their progress.”

Emily Valladares, street outreach manager for Open Door, one of the nonprofits that did the encampment outreach, said the funding made such an impact because it went beyond rent assistance to include costs for moving, to wipe away debts and to help pay medical co-pays, among other relief.

To grow the on-the-ground efforts, leaders divided the county into eight geographic areas with a different nonprofit assigned to each locale. Two additional culturally specific nonprofits were hired to supplement that work – one for youth and another for immigrants and refugees. In all, 20 outreach workers fanned out across the county.

With a homeless population significantly smaller than its neighboring Multnomah County, the mission was achievable.

“This was truly coordinated work,” Larson said. “This wasn’t just people doing outreach on their own, but it was a plan that covers the whole county. And certain people have certain specialties and law enforcement knows who each outreach provider is in their area.”

Forest Grove Police Chief Henry Reimann said there “is a night and day difference … Before, finding beds was difficult to do. Prior to the dollars, we didn’t understand or have information on where beds were available.”


While the focus on shelter expansion took up a large part of the first year of the tax dollars, the outreach system was built in the second year, with the nonprofit contracts assigned in July 2022.

County leaders and outreach workers also created a by-name list to track each person by geographic location – a doable feat since, unlike in Multnomah County, no list was thousands of names long. Workers sat at the same table as county leaders each week to discuss each person’s case – What kind of housing was available for this person? And how can they reengage with that other person who left shelter? Where might they find him again?

“The county was working case by case with us, coming up with a place that was tailored to each person,” said Valladares. “They sat beside us and game planned for every person we saw in the field.”

The number of housing vouchers, which offer partial to full rent assistance, substantially increased with the new funding as well.

Vouchers grew from 200 to 1,850 overnight.

“That was game changing,” Larson said. “That was the biggest and most important element.”

In the first year, the county placed 370 people into housing using those vouchers, missing their initial goal of 500 people. In the second year, they surpassed that goal, though, with 630 placements. Now, in their third year, they are on their way to placing 500 people before June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

To keep all those people successfully housed, the county is next looking to create a stronger retention system by hiring workers who will help people navigate life when newly housed and beyond.

“We are looking at creating a pool of retention workers, but the point is we started from scratch, we needed everything, and we had to start somewhere,” Larson said.

The funding was also used to create four daytime access centers throughout the county where people can access meals, showers, laundry services and housing support. But county leaders still have a long list of support services they hope to tackle. They say they believe their full support system can be fully operational within two years.

Next, Rogers and Larson plan to diversify housing options in the county to include transitional housing, addiction recovery housing and housing for people with long-term disabling conditions.

“We want to have purpose-built housing where we partner with our healthcare system,” Larson said. “When thinking about higher acuity needs, we want residences with specialized care attached, where there is a provider that can help people with laundry, teach people how to cook and remind them to pay their bills.”

Valladares said more general housing units need to be identified as well.

“We have enough shelters now, but we also need more housing,” Valladares said. “We need some place for people to exit to once they are in shelter.”

Rogers believes a few factors allowed the county to quickly see impact. The large influx of new money helped, but so did the county’s relatively streamlined governance structure and bureaucracy, she said.

If changes to homeless services need to be approved, she and her team only need to go before the Washington County Commission as opposed to multiple boards and councils that her counterparts must navigate in Multnomah County and the city of Portland, she said.

Unlike in larger county governments, Washington County’s housing services department, housing authority, homeless services and the coordinated care system are all under one roof, not spread among different agencies.

“We don’t have to answer to three boards and we can just pivot when we need to because our single board respects us as experts,” Rogers said. “We really just need two more years until our whole system is built out.”

Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at nhayden@oregonian.com.

If you purchase a product or register for an account through a link on our site, we may receive compensation. By using this site, you consent to our User Agreement and agree that your clicks, interactions, and personal information may be collected, recorded, and/or stored by us and social media and other third-party partners in accordance with our Privacy Policy.