Earlier this year, Fox News went on a West Coast tour of cities with high numbers of homeless people to “chronicle the toll progressive policies have had.”
One of the cities the conservative news channel stopped in was Portland.
While there, Fox captured residents saying the city was a mecca for services, and those services have since run out, as well as business owners saying mental health and drug abuse is keeping people from wanting to get housing.
What the segment didn’t show is how the Tri-County area is actually addressing homelessness. It’s been creating coalitions, consolidating government offices and raising awareness of the extent of the Tri-County’s unhoused population. With help from coalitions and collaboration, the region is looking at instituting a tax to provide help for the chronically homeless. Eugene and Lane County could take notes on what has worked in Oregon’s largest city.
In 2004, Portland adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The plan obviously didn’t work.
According to Multnomah County’s 2019 Point in Time report, 2,037 people were unsheltered, 1,459 people were sleeping in emergency shelters and 519 people were in transitional housing — a total of 4,015 people fitting HUD’s definition of homelessness.
But Portland Commissioner Nick Fish told The Oregonian in 2015 that calling the 10-year plan a failure because of the existence of the unhoused is like blaming an emergency room surgeon for not making a safer car when treating car crash injuries.
When the city’s 10-year plan ended in 2014, city, county and housing authority leaders talked with stakeholders to discover what did and didn’t work, Joint Office of Homeless Services Director Marc Jolin tells Eugene Weekly.
The result was a group called A Home for Everyone.
The first level of the organization is the executive committee, which includes the Multnomah County chair, the mayor of Portland, the mayor or a designee from Gresham, leadership from the business community and other prominent stakeholders.
But it’s at the coordinating board level where the community expertise thrives, Jolin says.
The board has representatives from business, housing developers, public safety, service providers and more.
To illustrate how the two committees collaborate, Jolin says in the early days of A Home for Everyone the executive committee wanted to participate in the federal efforts to address homeless veterans. That led to a series of conversations about curbing veterans’ homelessness, the tools available and the barriers the plan could encounter.
“We moved it forward and were ultimately successful a number of years ago achieving the federal benchmark,” he says.
Including members from the business community created a collaboration that’s been instrumental to addressing homelessness, as well. “Having the business community leadership actively involved in day-to-day work has helped deepen understanding about how our strategies work, why we adopt the strategies that do,” he says.
Collaboration between the business community and homeless agencies has been important, he adds. “Because of that collaboration, we had a lot of support from the business leadership when we moved from talking a lot about shelter to talking about permanent supportive housing,” he says.
Jolin says some businesses even offered space in their buildings for shelter.
Coordinating governmental jurisdictions and other stakeholders has helped make the case for more resources, he says. A Home for Everyone has expanded its investments, helping an ever-increasing number of people move off the streets and into permanent housing, Jolin says.
A Home for Everyone assisted about 3,000 people in moving out of homelessness and into housing when it first started in 2014. The group helped nearly 5,924 people get off the street and into housing last year.
The Portland area is still experiencing a housing and homelessness crisis, but it would be worse without A Home for Everyone, Jolin says.
“We’re confident that had we not had this initiative in place, had we not had the kind of cooperation and alignment, circumstances would be much worse in our community than they are today,” Jolin says. Accomplishments by A Home for Everyone made uniting the homeless services offices of the city of Portland and Multnomah County possible, he says.
Portland and Multnomah County combined all of their contracts, services and staff into one office, the Joint Office of Homeless Services. The move came so the two governments weren’t duplicating efforts, Multnomah County Chair Deb Kafoury tells EW.
One of the benefits, Kafoury says, is having one point of contact. If someone from a neighborhood association wants more information about a service, they only have one office to call.
Merging the two agencies has created a governance structure where city and county officials work at the table together, committed to aligning visions and financial resources, Jolin says. In some cases, he says, the two governments were contracting with the same nonprofit but under different contracts, relying on separate data systems and expectations.
“So it makes it more efficient for the nonprofit. It is more efficient on the government side,” he says. “We were able to bring together the expertise of the staff on the city side and the expertise of the staff on the county side into one space.”
Portland’s housing crisis has been a long time in the works, Kafoury says, and it won’t be solved overnight.
“It’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to take everybody working together and not pointing fingers and blaming,” she says.
There has been some collaboration to raise revenue for housing. In 2016, Portland voters approved a $258.4 million bond to create 1,300 affordable homes. In 2018, voters approved a $652.8 million bond to create affordable homes across Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties.
“That was the first time in the history of our community that we’ve had three counties coming together and supporting such an effort,” Kafoury says. Even with public and private partnerships, you still can’t build affordable housing for people at the lowest income tier, she adds.
“Social security or SSI can be $780 a month, which doesn’t get you much, even under an affordable housing model,” she says. So a group of stakeholders want to put a measure on the November ballot to raise money for permanent supportive housing.
At the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ annual meeting on Nov. 12, Kafoury urged elected officials to join the coalition to ensure the ballot measure passes. “There is a coalition called HereTogether that’s business leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits, government, coming together to talk about a funding source for these crucially important supportive services,” she said at the end of the meeting. “We know we need them. The experts know, the public knows, and it’s a chance for voters to say they know, as well.”
HereTogether’s purpose is to raise awareness about what has been done for the homeless and which solutions need to happen next, Kafoury says.
HereTogether commissioned a poll to gauge public perception on the homeless. It shows 86 percent of people in the metro region see homelessness as the No. 1 priority, and that it isn’t just a Portland issue — all three metro area counties have to come together to solve it.
Kafoury says the results indicate that it’s not just Multnomah County residents, known to be more progressive, who say the issue is a top concern. Residents in Clackamas and Washington counties also think there’s more to be done.
The ballot measure supported by HereTogether will ask voters to OK a tax to fund more homeless services. She says proponents of the measure haven’t settled on a tax mechanism yet.
“A lot of the folks we’re seeing who are unable to get housing need more than just the keys to an apartment,” she says.
She adds that these people need mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment and a higher level of health care.
In a statement to EW, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler says public servants need help from the community to solve one of the community’s biggest crises. That’s why he regularly works with a wide-ranging coalition of outreach, housing, service personnel and other community members to prevent homelessness and mitigate its impacts, he says.
One of the community members Wheeler tapped for support is Robert Stoll, a Portland-based attorney who’s the board chair of HereTogether.
Stoll helped get Columbia CEO Tim Boyle and his wife, Mary Boyle, to donate $1.5 million for a 120-bed shelter and services center in downtown Portland, according to a Multnomah County press release from 2018. The donation was the result of the business community and government working together to address homelessness, the release said.
So EW reached out to Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis about the possibility of the city and county’s passing a ballot measure to raise revenue for homeless services. Vinis, who’s running for re-election in 2020, says she would support bringing the city together with Lane County government to float a ballot measure.
As mayor, Vinis says, she has prioritized forging a relationship between the two governments, which resulted in the passage and funding of a report from Boston consultant Technical Assistance Collaborative. The TAC report, she said, “will help people in our community stabilize their lives.”
“Our city has taken strong steps in working with the county government to increase revenue toward homeless services, and I am always open of new, innovative ways to alleviate this problem,” she says in an email.
Vinis adds that she’s always looking forward to using revenue from the construction excise tax to fund more affordable housing in Eugene.
Higher Education Pitching in
Although Portland State University is independent of the other public-private enterprises trying to address homelessness, it works frequently with various government agencies, says Marisa Zapata, the director of Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative (HRAC) and professor in urban studies and planning.
In 2017, then-PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi asked for applications to create university-level interdisciplinary research centers. Out of the many applications, HRAC and a center focused on how technology impacts residents. Each center received $1.5 million from the university’s general fund, Zapata says.
PSU is just one of many U.S. universities with a group like this — University of Southern California, University of Washington and University of California, San Francisco are other examples.
HRAC’s August report let people know what the real scale of homelessness in the area is, says Zapata, the report’s lead author. The study was self-funded through another philanthropic gift from Tim and Mary Boyle.
Zapata says media outlets often focus on the annual Point-in-Time count to present the homeless population’s numbers, which follows HUD’s definition of homeless — excluding those doubled up or sharing other people’s housing.
In 2017, that number was under 6,000. But using the Department of Education’s method for counting the homeless, the number is actually around 38,000, she says.
“Whenever I present these findings people are a bit stunned at first but then seem to understand that the reason it can feel like we aren’t making progress, even though we are spending a lot of money, is that the number of people in need is much greater than we think,” she says. “I think people are now in the position to think about a long-term strategy to address homelessness and housing insecurity, and our report has come out in the midst of that.”
The August HRAC report said the cost to house and support the population ranges from $2.6 to $4.1 billion over 10 years. That doesn’t include what local governments already spend, according to the PSU report. Another 107,039 people were housing insecure or at the risk of homelessness, the report said, and it would take around $8.6 to $21 billion to provide rent assistance.
The report isn’t meant to push for a certain policy, Zapata said. The goal is to show the scope and scale of the challenges the Tri-County region faces in addressing homelessness and housing insecurity.
Local governments can only do so much, Kafoury adds. Multnomah County is stretched thin with its tax dollars and is dealing with a deficit. To fund homeless services in the past, the county has cut other programs.
The Portland area could see a ballot measure for funding in 2020, Kafoury says, but that won’t be enough. “One thing we need to work together on is to get the state and federal government involved,” she says.
The federal government has provided 80 percent less money than it did in the 1980s, she adds.
“Housing should be a right,” Kafoury says. “All of the other services — be it health care, behavioral service — none of that is successful unless someone has a place to live.”