By Rich Riegel
This article is one in a continuing series on homelessness in SE Portland. January’s issue featured “Speaking with the homeless”.
Susan Emmons is the executive director of the Northwest Pilot Project. The Southeast Examiner sat down with Emmons at the NPP office to discuss the issue of homelessness and her organization.
Emmons was asked about the mission of the NPP.
“We focus on people who are age 55 and over,” she began.
“We want everybody to have a decent, safe place to live that they can afford on their income. We want to respect the individual quality of each person, so we don’t have a cookie cutter approach.
“We don’t say, ‘One size fits all’. We really base our service on building a relationship with people, helping them tell us what are their goals, and how they see themselves living independently.”
“I think one of the things we’ve seen in recent years is more and more people calling from all over the county,” she said, “and basically saying they need help paying their rent.” Emmons said staff and counselors at NPP try to break that down, to find out if there’s an ongoing problem, such as job loss, health crisis or a raised rent.
“For some people they do have a short-term problem,” she said, “for other people they are in housing that is no longer affordable to them. We help them find a place that is affordable to them on their income.”
Emmons said NPP also sees displacement and older workers who are being laid off, and facing age discrimination in the workplace.
“If they can’t find work, we help them get on a disability,” she said, “or find another source of income so they can pay their rent. It’s a formidable problem – really growing.”
Emmons and her husband live in NW Portland. “We’re renters,” she said, “so I feel very affiliated with other renters. I see what goes on.” Emmons moved to Portland from the Chicago area in 1965 to attend Lewis & Clark College.
“When I moved here there were no publicly-funded homeless shelters,” she said. “People think we’ve always had homeless problems and programs for the homeless. Emmons is aware that Portland used to have more housing for lower income individuals.
“Some of it wasn’t very nice housing,” she said. “There were single room occupancy hotels in downtown, but there were many of them. The map we’ve kept displays the number of units we’ve lost.” (See graphic included with this article.)
“People could flop in and out of these buildings,” she continued, “and there weren’t a lot of background checks. I think people say today we have a homeless population because they abuse alcohol or drugs, they’re mentally ill, they’re prostituting themselves. I feel we had that same population in the ’60s when we didn’t have a terrible homeless problem, but there was sufficient housing for them to be in.
“I don’t think people always thought about who the urban renewal projects would be displacing, and where were those people supposed to go…”
“There’s a correlation between that lost housing and when we started funding homeless shelters in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “When I moved to Portland in the ’60s there were transients, but we didn’t have a population of homeless families.
The hardest housing to build is for People who are at 30 percent of median income or less. This housing takes a lot of public subsidy.
In earlier years Emmons thought we would build our way out of this problem, but she no longer believes that. “We have great nonprofits that build and develop and manage and own this housing, but we’re going to have to have other solutions to get to it.”
Those solutions don’t include “tent cities”. She doesn’t believe the solution lies in homeless camps or “pods that people live in. She would like to see real housing that people could spend their lives in.
“To me the solution is a local fund,” she said. “We need a housing trust fund, and it needs to be from a local resource.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people,” she said, “and the number that we came up with … was $1 billion over 20 years.” She said the fund could be used in a variety of ways, including new development, real estate preservation and rent subsidies.
Prominent businessmen assure Emmons the money is in this community because there’s always money for projects they really want to do.
Emmons says the city has come up with funding for a variety of projects, including the aerial tram in South Waterfront; the extension of the streetcar to the east side; the Columbia River Crossing studies and the Portland Bicycle Plan.
In her mind, if the city can come with hundreds of millions of dollars for those projects, why can’t it help the homeless?
“I think that it is very likely they are going to fund, with public funds from Metro, the city and the county, a hotel at the (Oregon) Convention Center. Many are convinced we need that.
“We can’t house all of our citizens, but we can build a convention hotel.
Emmons felt it‘s been “unfortunate Portlanders have become embroiled in a discussion and argument about homeless camps.
“The camps serve a symptom of the problem,” she said, “but they aren’t the solution. So I think that it’s very important, when people ask me, “Well, are you a supporter of the camps?’ I have to say, ‘If we have this terrible shortage of housing, every night we are turning people away from shelter, how can we tell people they can’t camp?’ Again, where are they supposed to go?’
“I don’t want to say I’m in favor of the camps, I think we can say we have a housing crisis so let’s really concentrate on the solution. Let’s look at lots of different possibilities.”
Emmons’ final statement was specifically tailored for this newspaper’s readers.
“One of the things that might be of interest to an audience in SE Portland,” she said, “is that (property owner) Joe Weston has a ‘whole portfolio of buildings, very decent housing.’”
Weston’s portfolio includes apartments and condominiums, office space, retail centers and industrial parks. She said Weston offered “affordable rents for the working poor.” She then asked a pointed question.
“What would it look like,” she said, “if over time, some of those properties were donated to a nonprofit that could bring rents down even lower.
“Would that be a possibility? I know (Weston’s) a person who’s very devoted to serving working poor, I’ve heard that about him. Has anybody approached him, somebody in a bigger, higher up position than me, to think about the possibility of that? Is there a way to take existing housing and bring down rents to make them more affordable?
“I think this is such a big problem,” Emmons said, “we’re not going to build our way out of it.”