By Jack Rubinger
One of the dangers of getting used to the homeless problem in Portland is that you start feeling numb, then angry, then sad, then you just want to leave town. It’s probably just as bad (if not worse) in any other city in America.
The homeless crisis here though, is worth talking about even if we can’t all agree on the best solutions.
That’s why people like Andy Miller, executive director of Human Solutions conducted a Community Conversation about Portland homelessness.
The first one, a test to see if there’s strong interest in the topic, was held in Mt. Tabor in August, with a panel consisting of Lisa Frack, Director of Communications & Development, and Marci Cartagena, Director of Emergency Services in charge of rental assistance and two shelters for the homeless.
Human Solutions is a thirty year old non-profit that provides rental assistance, family advocacy, and case management.
The organization runs both a family shelter and a shelter for unaccompanied women. They provide employment services, after-school programming for youth, and they build and operate affordable housing with more than seven hundred units currently.
While the fifty or so folks who showed up for the conversation were largely middle class white people who live in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood, the problem affects us all, no matter where we live.
Miller talked about both the problem, its complexity and a number of solutions, including creating more affordable housing.
He moved to Portland from the East Coast in the early 90s and said one of the problems is that Portland housing costs keep rising, but wages don’t.
He remembers reading articles about Portland being one of the most affordable cities in America, but now it’s one of the least affordable cities in America.
“This is a complex issue,” he said. “No one intervention is the right one.”
He discussed the prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse disorder among the street population, and the fact that there are many causes of homelessness, many related to systemic barriers and lack of opportunity.
Miller shared a study and data from both Scotland and Helsinki, which have public sector support for housing. Housing first is the concept.
“If it’s a lack of having a home regardless of traits, then we need to provide homes,” he said.
The meeting was lively and discussions focused on two things: that Portland residents do have a deep empathy and, while it’s easy to lose empathy, there are some homeless who are unable to meet community norms and expectations.
Miller believes its important to check in with the community at regular intervals to avoid what he calls compassion fatigue.
He indicated Human Solutions saw a noticeable drop in people seeking services after the City’s Relocation Assistance Ordinance went into effect.
“To me, that demonstrates that there are many people around us we don’t realize are actually living on the cusp of homelessness,” said Leah M. Fisher, Neighborhood Planning Program Manager, SE Uplift Neighborhood Coalition.
She added, “For those folks, the expenses associated with relocating to a, most likely, more expensive place given the increased housing costs, is more than they have.
“It also suggests that the incremental (relocation) cost for landlords can make the difference as to whether it is ‘worth it’ to evict a tenant for no cause or raise the rent over ten percent. I
“In my opinion, it reinforces the importance of tenant protections and demonstrates how some support from, and accountability on, the private housing market can make a real impact on people’s lives while reducing the burden on limited resources and organizations to address the housing crisis.”
According to the 2018 State of Housing in Portland Report, recent economic gains in the job market and steady migration of young educated professionals is fast transforming Portland into a higher cost city.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number and share of households here that make $100,000 or more increased by well over 11,000 with the share going up from twenty-three percent to twenty-seven percent.
In spite of the increase of income overall, a closer look at the data still reveals a different picture for many Portlanders based on their race and household type.
Most Communities of Color show stagnant or, in some cases, decreasing incomes when adjusted for inflation. Renters still haven’t achieved their pre-recession income levels, while homeowners have easily surpassed pre-recession levels.
“The seldom told story of the housing crisis is that it reinforces historical patterns of racial segregation,” said Miller.
On the bright side, communities have been supportive, he explained, with the passing of two affordable housing bonds, so it seems people do want to see more progress.