Community Report

We Know How to Solve Homelessness in Portland. What’s Stopping Us?

“These are not intractable problems. They can be solved.”

By Fiona McCann June 25, 2019 Published in the July 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Spoiler alert: We know how to solve homelessness. At least that’s what Dennis Culhane says, and he should know: the professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania has dedicated his entire professional life to researching the issue.

“These are not intractable problems,” says Culhane of the complex crises that combine to push people onto the streets. “They can be solved.”

It’s a statement that seems at odds with the overwhelming scope of the houselessness epidemic in Portland and Oregon right now. The most recent Multnomah County Point-in-Time count, from 2017, showed a 10 percent increase in Portland’s total homeless population compared to two years previously. And for many residents, a walk through Old Town, the Central Eastside, or other neighborhood pockets makes it clear: homelessness is far from solved.

It isn’t as if the powers that be aren’t trying. In 2016, Multnomah County announced it would guarantee shelter for every child in Oregon. But the county had to walk back the promise in 2017 after overflowing shelters required the county to fork out for motel rooms and costs skyrocketed.

We have succeeded in reducing the number of homeless veterans to “functional zero”—meaning the number of vets experiencing homelessness is less than the number being connected with permanent housing each month—thanks to an Obama-era federal program and its local implementation by governments and nonprofits. There’s our relatively new Joint Office of Homeless Services, which brought the delivery of all city and county homeless services under one banner in 2016. Many programs—a mobile housing team that helps families get into housing, a pilot project to fund long-term rent vouchers for senior citizens—have helped vulnerable populations. And last November, voters approved an unprecedented $652.8 million bond to create affordable housing across greater Portland.

And yet, it seems like the city’s homelessness problem is bigger than ever, even as we earmark more and more resources to fix it. The story is the same up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to Los Angeles, as dramatically rising housing costs outpace attempts to shelter each city’s citizens. What will it take to move the needle?

“The absence of access to affordable housing is the principle barrier to ending homelessness,” says Joint Office of Homeless Services head Marc Jolin, cutting to the heart of the matter. “You can’t end homelessness without housing, whatever else you’re able to do for someone.”

He’s talking about a housing first approach, a policy that is fast becoming the international gold standard for helping people experiencing homelessness. In Finland—the only European country that has managed to reduce its homeless population in recent years—“housing first” has been a national policy for more than a decade.

“It means that we provide homeless persons a permanent housing solution— a rental flat with your own rental contract, and also [caseworkers assigned to help with service access] if that’s needed,” says Juha Kaakinen, the CEO of a Finnish foundation focused on homelessness and a pioneer in “housing first” circles. In short, Finland invested aggressively in housing while removing barriers to accessing it, and the pay-off has been extraordinary. (Finland, a country of 5.5 million people, funds housing programs in large part through proceeds from a state-run gambling company. For more on how Oregon uses its lotto money, see page 58.)

“The homeless counts are still going down,” says Kaakinen, who says it’s hard to find anyone sleeping on the streets in the capital of Helsinki these days. As housing units went up, Finland’s shelter bed numbers decreased—he says they even converted some former shelters into housing units.

Portland, meanwhile, has been increasing its shelter capacity. (We’re up to 1,365 publicly funded beds now.) That may meet a short-term need, but, according to Kaakinen, it could actually damage our chances of long-term success. “It keeps the system as it is. It doesn’t solve the issue,” he says. “In many cases people return to the streets from temporary accommodation, and there seem to be not so many routes forward.”

Social scientist Culhane puts a finer point on it: “You know what they call people who are in shelters? They call them homeless people who are in shelters.”

The real success, say the experts, lies in a twofold approach: 1) rapid rehousing and prevention for those tipping into crisis homelessness, and 2) supportive housing for those experiencing chronic homelessness. The latter can involve creating a support team for each person housed, or purpose-built housing with health care and addiction and mental health counseling on-site. Portland’s already making inroads, with the city and county committing in 2017 to build 2,000 new supportive housing units by 2028. But that’s a 10-year deadline for an urgent need and many feel we can’t wait that long.

So what’s the stumbling block? “The issue is not that we don’t know what we need to do,” says Jolin. “It’s that we can’t scale our responses to the level of need.”

“Scaling” our response is the imperative that everyone agrees on. What it means is putting more money—a lot more money—and resources into what we’re currently doing to effect bigger changes. And it has to happen without the kind of federal funding cities and states might be used to; the Trump administration has consistently cut budgets to housing benefits and reduced federal investment in affordable housing. If West Coasters are going to spend more to make more impact, they’re going to have to do it with less federal help.

The good news is that states are taking matters into their own hands, and there are signs that things are shifting on a regional level: as California considers a new bill to make way for higher-density development, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek is also drafting a legislative proposal to change single-family zoning in smaller cities and towns to make space for more affordable housing.

These are the kind of ideas that have the rest of the country taking notice. “The homelessness crisis on the West Coast is driving a whole different political conversation,” says Culhane.

Locally, there are bright spots, too: Multnomah County’s promise of shelter for every child didn’t work, in part because it wasn’t replicated around Oregon, drawing families in need to Portland and overloading services here. But last November Oregonians passed Measure 102, amending the state constitution to make it easier for cities and towns around the state to fund the construction of affordable housing. That’s a statewide approach that could ease pressure on Portland and the county’s already stretched services.   

For Jolin, solutions lie in fixing problems before they become systemic. “Really thinking about how we bring down rents on units or increase the incomes that folks have available to them, that’s work that we need to be doing,” he says. “Beyond that, we have to look at how folks who are coming out of the criminal justice system are being given or not given the opportunity to rebuild their lives. That work of looking upstream at the institutions that are leading folks to become homeless is as important and, over time, probably more important than having the crisis response system we have here.”

But, as Jolin points out, we also need to serve those already on our streets. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed 2019–20 budget includes millions for programs specifically aimed at just that, including more than $870,000 for a pilot program to provide mobile showers and bathrooms, and $500,000 for the development of a new approach to responding to 911 calls related to street homelessness. Then there are the dozens of nonprofits already doing the tough work of helping their houseless neighbors across the metro area. (To read about four of them, see right.)

While Culhane commends that work, he urges people to keep their eyes focused on bigger systemic change. “The energy that people put into starting these small programs should really be put into starting a political campaign to right the ship,” he says with bracing clarity, urging individuals to work to elect 2020 candidates—from city council to president—who support strong investment in ending houselessness.

What’s needed is a united, aggressive, and systemic approach. It can’t be done with “lots of little pails of water,” says Culhane. “There’s a much bigger problem here.”

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