By David Krogh
Media estimates put the homeless count in Portland at +/- 5000 with increases around 10% per year. Portland has become a draw for the homeless population from not just other parts of the state, but other parts of the country.
A number of factors come into play here. Portland and Multnomah County have a history of wanting to shelter all homeless, especially families. Several jurisdictions in other parts of Oregon have actually encouraged homeless to come to Portland because they lack the resources to help them. The following article from OPB discusses the family shelter situation in great detail and why it hasn’t worked here: tinyurl.com/y728poz7.
Portland and Multnomah County have been lax in addressing homeless related problems such as camping in parking strips and under bridges, sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways, and the garbage and other sanitation/health issues that go along with this. This has given both transients and homeless the feeling that it’s okay for them to camp and sleep virtually wherever.
To help deal with homelessness, Portland and Multnomah County have created a Joint Office of Homeless Services to assist those in need of finding services and shelters: multco.us/joint-office-homeless-services.
A Google search revealed forty-nine day and night shelter locations run mainly by nonprofit organizations, most of them in the downtown area and only one in the general area of SE Portland.
Gentrification and the displacement it causes to low-income people, plus the side effects of inflated housing costs/rents, has also contributed to the homeless situation. Rental price gouging will likely continue until either there is rent control or adequate affordable and/or subsidized housing to meet the needs of those with low incomes.
Recent news indicates rents may have finally leveled off and even declined by 2-3%. However, overall, rents are still up from 10-50% since 2010 depending on the location.
The City has started to clamp down more on camping and sanitation issues, but mainly via complaints. This reluctance to enforce has served as a draw for homeless from out of the area and creates frustration for residents, business owners, and visitors. The situation is further confused by a recent 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals decision permitting the homeless to sleep in a public location if they are unable to locate available sheltering.
Mayor Wheeler has repeatedly identified homelessness as a regional problem, but there has not been the level of action necessary by the City and County to realistically address the issue. What is really needed are public and private partnerships to address homelessness holistically, and not just via more shelters.
Such a mechanism could have included utilization of the expensive and unused Wapato facility for both a shelter and transitional facility. However, Multnomah County passed on this idea and sold the facility for a substantial loss. Wapato discussion is still occurring in hopes of avoiding demolition in favor of conversion for homeless or mental health services per an October 1, article in The Oregonian.
One helpful homeless program readily visible is the Street Roots newspaper which provides up to five hundred homeless and needy individuals with opportunities to earn money and get into programs for housing and support.
Recently I stopped and talked briefly with Paul, one of the vendors. He said Street Roots was a stepping-stone for him to get into a better situation and that it is helping a lot of people like him maintain their dignity while getting needed services. (See streetroots.org)
Other private and nonprofit agencies bear the brunt of support for the homeless, including Portland Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and others. Innovative projects such as Dignity Village and Kenton Women’s Village provide safe locations for the homeless to stay. But much more is needed.
Gregg Harris, co-president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association has talked much about how to deal with homeless problems and states that there appears to be the transient travelers and the local homeless.
The travelers have tended to cause problems whereas the local homeless are generally just people in need. Many of the business operators help these homeless where they can. However, HBBA has private security hired to patrol Hawthorne and prevent camping out and related problems from occurring.
Harris indicates that pro-active City enforcement of camping laws and helping the homeless get into programs to help themselves would do more good for the situation than sympathetic inaction. He suggested that commercial and nonprofit partnerships could do a better job at addressing homelessness than public partnerships due to how cumbersome bureaucratic processes and excessive regulations tend to be.