By Midge Pierce

With the Mayor, Police Union Chief and other Portland residents trading barbs that the city has become everything from ungovernable to a cesspool, one thing most agree on: livability plummets as rancor, the unsheltered and even disputes over language grow. (Houselessness is the term social activists prefer.)

A recent Montavilla community forum about Roofs and Resources attempted to bring different perspectives together to listen and learn.

“Portland does not have a housing crisis; it has an affordability crisis,” Meg Hansen, tenant advocate, told participants

A frequent critic of the City’s lack of sensitivity to renters in its densification tactics, Hanson laid blame for housing “injustice” at the feet of corporate profiteers who demolish affordable housing and cause displacement of vulnerable populations.

She indicated that incentives like preserving the shrinking supply of existing, cost-effective housing are needed.

Aggravated by skyrocketing  housing costs, homelessness has become a many-pronged issue.  It includes the tragedy of those through circumstance or illness who experience it; the criminal predators and so-called travelers who exploit it; the residents and visitors fearful of it; the City unable to effectively address it; the apologists who defend it; and those dedicated to fixing it (or at least encouraging dialogue about fixes).

Then, there are the police caught in the middle of charges they are either overly aggressive in addressing it or delinquent in ignoring it. Lastly, there are journalists struggling to parse the many prongs.

Several points of view were on hand for the dialogue that organizer Olive Alsept-Ellis  billed as “discussion through a safety lens” of “what it means to be a neighborhood in the midst of a citywide housing and houselessness crisis.”

The forum of mostly social activists provided residents with a chance to engage with speakers. The speakers ranged from a founder of Right to Dream describing life with dignity inside self-governing camps, to City and County representatives who shared the challenges of providing shelter for the needy.

One speaker challenged the general assumption that homelessness was growing by suggesting that recent policies to close off access to bridges, underpasses and abandoned buildings has simply made the issue more visible.

Sally Erickson of the Joint Office of Homeless Services lamented that rents far outpace incomes. For those whose only source is Social Security, she said, $750 per month is no longer enough to cover Portland’s steep housing costs.

(A recent flier for a 200-square-foot SE micro-unit was listed just shy of $1100.)

In a data-filled presentation, Hanson nixed the myth that supply equals affordability or that today’s high prices will trickle lower. Demolition without reviews that consider consequences inevitably leads to tenant evictions, she warned, as affordable buildings come down to make way for a top-loaded market.

From the dust, exorbitant-priced, market rate housing arises. Urging density with sensitivity, she suggested the City consider municipally-funded landtrusts to offset rising costs.

Hanson traced the affordability issue back to the 2008 foreclosure epidemic that brought Wall Street into the rental business. The Street’s investments in market rate apartment complexes has given rise to houselessness and housing insecurity.

Availabilities for those at 30 or even 60% medium family income (MFI) is virtually nonexistent and Hanson, critical of densification proposals like the Residential Infill Project that lack incentives for preservation of affordable apartments and homes, says existing buildings could be repurposed to serve more families.

Such a concept is already operational through Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon whose program matches those who have a home with those needing one.

Home Share Manager Pauline Burkey said the program brings together home providers needing financial or physical support with home-seekers who agree to pay reduced rent in exchange for caretaking duties and companionship. The program provides case management and dispute resolution for up to two years. (For more information, see metrohomeshare.org.)

As the Housing Resource group groped for thoughtful solutions, citywide divisions deepened. Residents of Foster-Powell continue to question placement of a shelter in what one participant called the “worst possible location next to a school and daycare.”

After the forum, Metro’s Erickson addressed charges that the process lacked transparency. “We can’t just hand over a list of site options. Objections always arise wherever we propose shelters.”

The mayor has called the homeless situation nearly “intractable” and said the community could not expect the City to solve the problem alone. Later, following charges by the American Civil Liberties Union that houseless individuals were disproportionately arrested,  he called for a police investigation into the practice.

Questions then arose about where and how ACLU got its data. It has not responded as of this writing.

When it comes to sheltering thousands of our houseless population, no easy answers surface.