By Daniel Perez-Crouse
“We are treating the symptom and not the cause,” said Doug Riggs, Director of Alliance4Kids, while moderating an event hosted by the Oregon Health Forum about shifting the approach to homelessness.
The talk, Flip the Script: A Fresh Take on Ending Our Homeless Crisis, emphasized a general need to better serve youth homelessness, which, the panelists generally agreed will be key in potentially solving the issue as a whole.
President and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, Andrew Hoan said, “While every state deals with this issue, we are consistently at the top of failing our residents. I think that’s not a surprise to anybody.”
Hoan believes public concern over homelessness, already high, is going to skyrocket next year due to the CDC’s dissuading of breaking up encampments in the midst of COVID-19. That will be compounded by a struggling economy forcing more potential evictions.
“What people, especially in the metro region are seeing, is the enormity of the growth of the unsheltered population and the static nature of encampments which continue to grow,” he said.
Hoan pointed to the affordable housing crisis and lack of new unit developments as a major contributor.
In regards to youth homelessness, Riggs says that the millions of dollars Oregon has put towards this hasn’t helped homeless youth.
Barbara Duffield, the Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, says it’s just one part of the puzzle, especially for unattended homeless youth (UHY), because, as she said, “Minors can’t sign leases. If we want to get ahead of the problem, we have to reserve resources for young adults, because housing does not always end homelessness.”
Duffield has an extensive, 20-year history in this field. Since the late 1990s, she says policy and resources have been focused on the most visible forms of homelessness, single adults on the street.
Whether it be George Bush’s chronic homeless initiative, Barack Obama’s federal plans to “opening doors,” or Donald Trump’s emphasis last summer on encampments, Duffield says that with these bipartisan failings, we are not changing our approach or focus.
“The pipeline into homelessness is youth homelessness,” Duffield said.
Noting data from HUD, in Los Angeles, more than a quarter of homeless adults 25 and over said their first homeless episode occurred between 18 and 24 years of age. In Seattle, when asked about their first time experiencing homelessness, 18 percent were children under 18.
Citing statistics from Voices of Youth Count, Duffield identified factors that increase risks of homelessness, like not having a high school diploma or GED, annual household income less than $24,000, being an LGBTQ youth and more.
Moreover, Riggs spoke to the traumas and barriers they face. He said, among the UHY populations supported by his organization, three quarters of them live with a chronic medical condition, 40-60 percent were physically abused and 20-40 percent were sexually abused.
Some of these factors and influences were echoed by the testimonies of Safina Zuniga, a 20-year-old Portland native who experienced homelessness from ages 13-18.
Zuniga said she “never lived in one place for more than two years” and “bounced” around households if her mom was in prison, father was deep in alcoholism or other family members could not afford to house her.
One day, a school counselor saw her crying after a recent eviction and facilitated interactions that ultimately lead to her contacting a home provider.
“It was a very fast process and I felt comfortable going into that situation,” Zuniga said.
She graduated from Beaverton High a year early at 17, but six months after leaving her provider, she was homeless again – self attributing this to alcoholism and drug abuse to cope with her past traumas and physical abuse.
“If I had known there were youth recovery centers, that may not have had to happen.”
One of the main recommendations from Duffield is listening to and learning from youth and providers because many response systems are designed by people who don’t see the reality first-hand.
“The insights of real experts must be headed and inform, shape, and implement solutions,” she said.
Someone Duffield considers among the “real experts,” is Tricia Frizzell, Program Director of Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Home Youth Services.
Frizzell detailed other youth stories involving substance abuse, premature death, family abuse and being in homeless shelters at ages 11 and 13.
Due to a lack of funding and the severity of her work, she expressed the difficulties of being a provider at this time.
“It’s hard to manage the pressures and lack of funding and how you are going to make even just your operations survive; let alone the outcomes for youth.”
Riggs said the state does not supply enough for this population at $2.5 million per biennium, especially in comparison to Washington’s $33 million.
Frizzell stressed the need for dedicated funds because otherwise, adult homeless providers are going to fight for and receive a majority of competitive funding.
They are “very much a deserving population to be funded,” but it’s going to “swallow up every last dollar,” she said, mentioning Bill 40-39 that would lead to a statewide assessment of the needs and services of UHY and authorize one-year grants to organizations that provide services and operate host home projects for UHY.
Frizzell listed all the ways she, and other providers would use additional funding like this: to expand host home programs (the same concept Zuniga benefited from); increase transitional housing; do more targeted outreach; improve facilities and make sure they have adequate mental health and substance use help during the hours and timing services youth really need them.
“Homelessness doesn’t operate nine to five. Those after-hours services are critical and that’s where a lot of those traumas come to the surface.”
In addition to the bill, Hoan brought up the HereTogether-Metro services initiative.
Voted in last May, it’s meant to be a regional response to homelessness and provide systemic changes to the methods of delivering services across the three counties of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington.
Hoan said this is going to deliver a “historic” $250 million annual revenue stream. The HereTogether project website’s timelines indicates this process will begin this January, when annual revenues are first received and service providers can make use of them.
Ultimately, the panel conveyed the need for youth intervention for future homeless prevention. Frizzell said if this isn’t supported, then “good luck in 10 years when we have twice as many homeless adults.”
Zuniga will not be among them, as she now has her own apartment and, as she says, “an enormous amount of support people and resources. I know where to go when I need help.”
Access the full discussion at bit.ly/Flip-The-Script.