Struggling to make the homeless a priority in a city’s heart, wallet
BY ALAN PITTMAN, PHOTOS BY TODD COOPER
COUPLE: BILL CONN AND DAWN WILSON
|TWO GENTLEMEN IN THE WASHINGTON-JEFFERSON PARK|
|VETERAN LEE BEAM|
While thousands of homeless people shuffle in the cold rain along local streets as the Christmas spirit fades, the city’s top priority is not people but potholes; not home but new city offices.
Eugene schools enroll about 1,000 homeless children. Last January officials counted 2,296 homeless people in Lane County in a one-night census. Every year, service providers count contacts with more than 7,600 unduplicated homeless people.
With winter deepening and thousands unsheltered, the Eugene city staff and City Council sat down Nov. 28 to decide on the city’s top priorities to refer tax measures to voters. The decision was bold and ambitious. Ask residents, 21 percent of whom live in poverty, to approve a $81 million tax increase in May for smoother asphalt, the largest tax hike in the city’s history. Break the record again in 2010 by seeking about $188 million more in taxes for a new City Hall. The homeless problem wasn’t even mentioned.
To be fair, this mayor and council have done far more for the homeless than previous officials. The city launched a homeless initiative last year, and last February helped give more than 1,000 homeless people critical services from hair cuts to medical care at an event at the Lane County Fairgrounds. Another Homeless Connect event is scheduled for Feb. 7.
Mayor Kitty Piercy also appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to Finance Homelessness and Housing Programs. On Dec. 5 the committee came up with a draft proposal: a $5 million property tax increase with half spent on building more affordable housing and the other half divided between homelessness prevention and emergency shelter.
Many important details of the draft proposal remain to be decided, and the committee plans to meet again in January for more discussion. One big issue is whether they even dare to ask for the homeless to be given a higher priority than potholes and new city offices for an election slot. “We all compete,” committee Vice-Chair John Van Landingham said of the ballot timing issue. “I don’t know that we should be deciding that.”
The $5 million a year isn’t nearly enough to end homelessness. But the committee draft report estimates it will prevent hundreds of people from becoming homeless, provide some emergency shelter and put hundreds more in permanent housing. “It’s enough to make a significant impact,” Van Landingham said.
The cost of not acting could be much higher, according to the report. Homelessness increases the costs for schools, health care and jails. Homeless children struggle in school, taking scarce teacher time away from other kids in crowded classrooms. Homelessness exacerbates medical and mental problems, forcing many people to seek costly emergency room and medical health treatment. Local hospitals make up for the $858/day for psychiatric ward stays and the $362/day for emergency room visits by passing the cost on to the insured in the form of higher charges. Many homeless people find shelter only in the Lane County Jail, which costs taxpayers about $359 a day per inmate.
SHELTER VS. HOUSING
But while Blue Ribbon Committee members agreed on the need to act, they were divided on just what to do.
For example, should the city focus on building permanent homes or providing emergency shelter? For decades the city has focused on building permanent low-income housing for people at risk of homelessness. But that approach has left many hard-core disabled or addicted homeless people shivering without shelter.
“Our biggest responsibility is you’ve got people freezing on our streets,” said Committee member Hugh Massengill, also a member of the city’s Human Rights committee. Massengill said he’d like half the new money to go to emergency shelter rather than just the 15 to 25 percent proposed.
But most of the local affordable housing establishment appears to strongly oppose shifting resources. Committee members Van Landingham, St. Vincent dePaul Director Terry McDonald and ShelterCare Director Susan Ban argued strongly against shifting resources from permanent housing programs.
Emergency shelters have “huge costs” and “that takes every cent a community has” for addressing the homeless problem, Ban said. She said her numbers show that emergency shelter is “the single most expensive way to provide the service and has the poorest outcomes.”
“Homeless people don’t really want shelter, they want housing,” said Van Landingham.
Massengill appeared unconvinced. “Communities all over the country have public shelter services.” Eugene has the Mission, he said, but the church-run shelter “has a huge religious component.”
McDonald said he’d heard “tension” over the religious mission of the Mission for decades in Eugene. But he questioned whether taxpayers would want to foot the bill for a nonreligious public replacement. He said he’d like a tax vote to resolve the dispute and say, “You that so strongly oppose such a way of delivering services have an opportunity to vote on it. Have a good day.”
Mayor Piercy cautioned committee members not to let the fractious shelter vs. housing issue weaken their appeal to help the homeless. Let’s “not approach this as one thing versus the other,” the mayor said. “It just begs people to pile up on sides.”
Committee member Ron Chase suggested a compromise approach could be a voucher system for emergency housing in private rentals that was linked to programs to help people apply for long-term benefits.
USING THE HOMELESS
Piercy also cautioned the committee about avoiding enmeshing itself in another fractious local issue — whether or not to expand the urban growth boundary (UGB).
Developers have long sought to use homeless people as a lever to fight regulations against urban sprawl and against impact fees. They argue that such regulations and fees reduce land supply and increase housing costs. But environmentalists have long countered that developers just want to build high-profit expensive homes on UGB expansions, and that efficient compact growth and ending developer subsidies reduce housing costs by lowering taxes.
The issue has heated up now after developers successfully pushed Springfield to fast track a UGB expansion Eugene balked at. To address the homeless issue, “what I’ve seen us support as a council is new development,” said committee member and Springfield City Councilor Hillary Wylie.
Van Landingham and Ban appeared to side with the developer lobby’s argument that a UGB expansion would help the homeless.
Piercy said that made her “worry” about turning the homeless issue into a “UGB discussion.” It would be better if the committee “put it in a context where you don’t invite people to argue over their basic tenets,” she said. For example, the committee could “frame” the issue differently by recommending that if there is a UGB expansion, it include affordable housing.
Ban said the UGB was a “big deal” but agreed that the committee may want to “package” the issue differently.
Van Landingham said that one approach could be to trade a UGB expansion with developers in exchange for including a certain amount of affordable housing in the new area.
California and other states often mandate “inclusionary zoning” for low-income housing in new developments, but developers here successfully lobbied the Legislature to prohibit the practice in Oregon.
An affordable housing element in a UGB deal may be hard to enforce. A decade ago, development interests successfully pushed for a UGB expansion for new kid soccer fields near Gateway Mall. Now the UGB expansion is the site of the Royal Caribbean call center.
Another undecided issue is whether the new funding should come in the form of a property tax increase at all.
McDonald cautioned that many would react negatively to a tax increase. “It’s these people that want to get more money for government,” he described the reaction. “In terms of getting another tax source for the city, I think you lose the game.”
McDonald said a better approach may be to ask the city to dedicate more of its existing general fund to the homeless issue.
The city of Eugene is more flush with money now than it has been in years. By reducing services, the city has accumulated a $30 million fund it has set aside for building a new City Hall and/or police building. Already the city has spent more than $2 million from the fund for design and PR work to try to sell the building to voters. The city has also spent tens of thousands of dollars on PR hyping the pothole issue.
But the homeless may have tough competition for more general fund money. Conservatives are pushing for spending millions from the general fund on potholes and a big increase in police officers, despite falling crime rates.
Another approach may be to lessen the hit on Eugene taxpayers by having Springfield and Lane County share the bill for the regional problem. But Springfield has shown limited interest in social service funding in the past, and Lane County government is focused on law enforcement and weathering a possible cut in federal subsidies.
If Eugeneans are stuck with the bill, a more palatable approach could be a graduated income tax based on the ability to pay. That could garner more money from the rich Ebenezers while protecting the poor from having to pay more taxes through high rents they already struggle to afford.
A county income tax failed recently at the ballot, but that tax was criticized by progressives for focusing on jails and imposing the same flat rate for rich and poor.
Another tax approach could be using a real estate transfer tax to hit up the Realtors and developers who have cashed in on the housing boom in recent years at the expense of affordable housing. But Van Landingham warned that such a tax could be harder to pass. “With a targeted tax, you create an instant enemy.”
Whatever the case, the city council plans to take up the recommendation from the committee in the coming year and decide where the city’s true priorities lie. A homeless shelter or a new City Hall? Street repair or street people?