Homeless Solutions Remain Elusive

By Midge Pierce

T he City, County and State are spending more than ever to curb homelessness. This year’s Point in Time Count showed homeless numbers down slightly over last year offering a ray of hope that expenditures might be working. Skeptics (and anyone walking through SE) might think it was an undercount. 

Making a dent in the crisis is almost impossible without sustained services, according to panelists at a recent Sunnyside Neighborhood Association symposium remarkable for intersecting government, law enforcement, public health, housing affordability and compassion. 

Multnomah County has made significant inroads toward getting an estimated six thousand homeless off the streets and is readying new shelters in SE where the brunt of houselessness has hit. The state has almost doubled what it spends on assistance for the houseless, mostly congregated here. 

In Portland, thousands have no roof over their heads and tens of thousands are housing insecure, according to Marc Jolin, Director, Joint Office of Homeless Services that provides some seventeen hundred beds, with more in the works. 

The urgency of the situation is driven home by the death of ninety-two houseless persons last year. 

Panelists at the October Crisis and Conscience event agreed: the solution is not housing. It’s housing plus counseling, treatment and training. 

Missing is federal support for mental health and drug rehabilitation leading to rapid re-housing, according to Jolin. 

Sheltering is not a “one and done.” No sooner are thousands off the streets, he said, than more take their place. He considers current counts of four thousand without shelter on any night a low ball number. 

Surprising data emerged: 

• Oregon ranks forty-ninth for access to drug and alcohol treatment

• Homeless have lost dentures, passports and identification after sweeps

• Portland has only nine open bathrooms. Only three are open all night.

Panelist Vince Masiello, who spent eighteen months unhoused, called homelessness a crisis of human dignity. 

With no place to perform bodily functions or safeguard identities, barriers to re-housing or finding jobs increase. The result is a thirty-seven percent increase of chronically homeless people, longer stays in shelters, and fewer transitions out of untenable situations.

Central Precinct Police Commander Mike Krantz said the role of police officers is law enforcement, not clearing camps and moving people – resource intensive activities that fail to solve problems.  

Scarce police resources need to be reserved for the most serious offenses. Drug use is not a crime, he explained, distribution is. Discarding needles is not a crime. It’s a public health issue. Understanding facts, he said, helps the public avoid false crime reports. 

Portland Fire and Rescue healthcare coordinator Tremaine Clayton concurred that residents should think twice before dialing 911. More emergency calls make it harder to activate services. He urged the use of the non-emergency number instead: 503.823.3333.

Clayton revealed a Portland Street Response Plan that differentiates between a situation that one trained individual could handle vs. four EMTs and a fire rig. He called on Portlanders to “lookout for hate speak” and “be intentional with 911 before using it as a weapon.” 

Sunnyside Environmental School Principal Amy Kleiner added that a rise in concerned calls is making it difficult to distinguish real emergencies and traumatizes children who become “constantly on the alert about scary, unexpected happenings.”  

When a comment arose about turning the empty Wapato facility into a shelter, Jolin responded that warehousing five hundred people into a giant, remote facility without transportation, employment or community centers is not a good use of limited resources. “We don’t need a big building. We need investment in services.” 

State Representative Rob Nosse stood to express doubts the state has room for significant new investment. Passing a $1 billion a year increase in taxes needed to pay for rental assistance statewide would be a “hard lift,” he said. “In that light, we have to recognize that camping is not temporary, it will be part of the community for awhile.”

The state offices of health services indicate that investments through 2021 will result in nearly seven thousand affordable units and preservation of approximately thirteen hundred+ existing units. 

Last January, a joint state, county and city partnership announced a $12 million affordable housing set-aside. Without sustained wrap services, said panelists, sheltering alone is not the solution. 

Patience runs thin among residents who find needles in yards, bodies passed out on sidewalks and poop on stoops. Last year, the city spent $2.1 million on cleanup that included eight thousand pounds of human waste, nineteen hundred tons of trash and nearly five hundred thousand needles, according to Portland’s Homeless and Urban Camping Improvement Reduction Program. 

The program lists goals for increased resource awareness, more hygiene and sanitation options plus development of lawful places for people to sleep. 

Not everyone is keen on mainstreaming urban camping though.

Social media burns with outrage over trash, trespassing, property damage, theft and personal safety concerns blamed on campers, especially those who are addicts. Activists point out the fallacy of equating addiction with homelessness; bloggers counter that half of last year’s homeless deaths were drug-related. 

At the Sunnyside symposium, a few tentative souls expressed fears and frustrations over the spreading crisis. 

Erin Martin of the United Methodist Conference admitted that community pushback and hostility were factors in closing down the Sunnyside Community Center that offered the homeless food and showers. The church hasn’t abandoned its care of the marginalized, she said. Rather, it has to “think on how to grow our capacity for kindness.”

Afterward, a woman wondered why the situation has grown so much worse in the last three years. She described being assaulted by a man presumed homeless on Burnside. “It’s turning into a Zombie apocalypse,” she said.  

While acknowledging that  homelessness is not a crime, she said lawlessness is.

“It seems there are two sets of rules. One of tolerance for the homeless; another for the rest of us.”

A Creston-Kenilworth resident complained about dumpster messes and needles in kids’ play areas near a new shelter. 

Increasingly, longtime residents threaten to leave. A former city employee decried what she termed “pro-homeless acceptance at the expense of safe, sanitary neighborhoods,” and said she is looking to leave Portland after fifty+ years because of the City’s  “incompetence” in solving its many problems. 

She is not alone. The loss of longtimers stakeholders and businesses (the taxbase and backbone of the City) leaves Portland worse off than before.

Homeless Solutions Remain Elusive

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