By  Don MacGillivray

From the Mayor’s recent statements and the City budget process, it is clear that a top priority of the City of Portland is to address homelessness and its many causes. The Joint Office of Homeless Services is the City-County coordinator of activities and organizations that address homelessness. They help people: 1) that are in danger of losing their current housing, 2) to find new homes if they lose their own, and 3) find shelter with services for those that need it. They fund long term prevention, housing placement, and shelter interventions for thousands of people each year. This, along with many other activities, support the variety of solutions addressing homelessness.

There are 1,670 houseless people sleeping outside and unsheltered on Portland’s streets. Appropriate hygiene and sanitation is sorely lacking. The spread of disease is easily prevented with the proper hygiene, but there is often no place to wash with soap, access to toilets, showers with clean hot water, or laundry facilities. Without proper access to these facilities people do whatever they need to do which is often unsanitary and unsafe. It is also an important factor in maintaining basic human dignity. The solution is portable toilets that are placed at strategic locations across the city. The sooner the housing and homeless crisis is solved the sooner these expensive services can be ended.

Helping with these situations is the job of Portland Street Medicine. They are volunteer medical providers, social workers, care managers, and lay people that reach out to the city’s most forgotten community members to provide medical care and a lot more. In addition to providing medical care, the group works to establish trust within marginalized populations while simultaneously educating the entire community about “the system” and how it often leaves individuals behind. The 26 credentialed volunteers consist of professionals that traverse the territory where their clients are to be found.

To address the various camping issues the City and County provides a program to reduce the impact of illegal urban camping in neighborhoods that is called the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program or HUCIRP. They run a campsite reporting system that responds to community complaints and cleans up homeless campsites. In the first three months of this year HUCIRP received over 8,000 reports concerning homeless issues from citizens. During this time period HUCIRP posted and cleaned up over 500 campsites in the communities of Portland.

In spite of the fact that there are not enough shelter beds, it is still illegal to camp in Portland without permission. Campers will be removed as they are identified and as the resources become available. Campers are given 48 hours advance notice to move. High impact camps that risk the public health and safety are prioritized. They are removed in a compassionate manner and assistance is provided with finding shelter space and services or at least a more appropriate location to sleep in the open. The Portland Police and various social service providers do the work.

To report a campsite visit www.portlandoregon.gov/campsites or call 503.823.4000 and an Information and Referral Specialist will write out a report and submit it to the proper authorities.

The Joint Office of Homeless Services provides everyone seeking short term housing assistance with a warm, safe place to stay. This winter the severe weather shelters were opened 11 times. This is in addition to the 1,620 shelter beds that are open throughout much of the year. Another 300 beds are available from private community services. On the coldest nights over 2,000 shelter beds are available.

The 211-information dispatchers on a 24-hour basis connect people needing shelter and arrange a bed and transportation to an available facility. For those with medical issues the Medical Reserve Corp volunteers provide their services.

On a given night 56,000 households in the Portland region might become homeless because they cannot afford their rent. Short Term Rent Assistance is one way to address this crisis. This is especially important for families with children. A year after leaving the Short Term Rental Assistance program more than 83.5 percent of all families remained housed.

At one time the federal government played a larger role in housing. But over the last thirty years the budgets of the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been reduced significantly. It seems ironic that with the housing affordability crisis the largest government subsidy goes to the middle class through the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction Program. It is estimated the this tax expenditure costs the United States public over $100 billion a year and none of it will help to solve the homeless or housing crisis.

But the federal government is helping to reduce the housing crisis through subsidized rents. Home Forward, the Portland regions housing authority, controls 11,800 housing units for low-income and elderly households at a cost of $103 million a year. However, the waiting lists for these apartments are long and the average wait is five years or more. The average monthly subsidy is $750 per unit. The average yearly income for households receiving long-term assistance is only $12,500 and almost a third of these households are families with children.

The homeless situation is bad, hopefully the Mayor’s new plan will slowly improve the situation over time.