By Don MacGillivray
In many of Portland’s neighborhoods the homeless crisis is increasingly observable. The lack of progress in addressing this crisis is due, in part, to the pandemic, but it is also due to the scale and the complexity of its causes and solutions.
The official number of homeless people in Portland is estimated to be 4,000. This figure is obtained from a physical count taken on a few winter nights every other year. Unofficial estimates of the homeless suggest that it is in the thousands.
Half are likely living in shelters, cars, campers, couch-surfing or in another temporary lifestyle while the others are camping somewhere on or near the streets of Portland.
Last month the “HereTogether” coalition issued the 2022 Roadmap that outlines the way Portland will address the crisis. Several ballot measures, local and regional funding and a large infusion of federal funds should provide the means to solve it. It has the support of key local leaders and over 190 businesses and organizations that eagerly await its implementation.
The five critical areas in the 2022 Roadmap are: 1) increase permanent and emergency housing, 2) implement Regional Long-Term Rent Assistance, 3) expand outreach programs, 4) expand hygiene and sanitation services and 5) increase accountability, transparency and collaboration.
The report gives details about specific goals to be implemented as soon as possible. This is the strongest initiative Portland has seen since the homeless epidemic began in the recession of the 1980s.
The resources to provide housing and services for the homeless have been increasing exponentially in recent years. This fall Portland and Multnomah County approved an additional $38 million to expand the homeless shelter capacity by 400 beds, increase the number of campsite removals and expand the number of outreach teams.
While Portland has been in a housing crisis since 2016, the Portland Housing Bureau has opened 3,400 new affordable housing units in the last five years and another 2,900 affordable units are under development. They also manage 15,000 regulated, rent supported housing units across the city.
Multnomah County, in partnership with other organizations, has supported 28,000 households with COVID-19 cash assistance. In addition, the Portland Rental Services Office provides information, referrals and technical assistance for landlords and renters. In 2020 their helpline assisted over 9,500 callers.
In May of 2020, metro area voters approved Measure 26-210 to provide $248 million per year for 10 years to address the needs of the people experiencing homelessness. It is now known as the Supportive Housing Services fund and it became available in July of 2021.
It can be used for emergency outreach, shelters, paying rent, case management, mental and physical health services, cultural issues and more throughout the three urban counties.
In 2018, voters approved a $652 million bond measure to create permanently affordable housing across the region. It is expected to build 3,900 units for families, seniors and veterans at a cost of $167,000 per unit over the next seven years.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services is responsible for the delivery and coordination of homeless assistance for the City of Portland and Multnomah County. They will be receiving a large share of the Supportive Housing Services fund over the next 10 years.
However, the Bureaus of Housing, Police, charities and non-profit organizations have significant roles to play.
Two years ago, the City of Portland swept 2,169 homeless camps. Last year only 248 homeless camps were swept because of the threats of COVID-19. The Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program manages this work and their website documents their activities.
To report a campsite or people living in vehicles, visit the city’s One Point of Contact website, bit.ly/OnePointOfContact. Weekly campsite summary reports, including the locations of reported camps, are available at bit.ly/WeeklyCampsiteReports.
In addition to the support provided by local government and charities, citizens of Portland are frequently being asked to assist the homeless. One of these groups is the Portland Mutual Aid Network.
Since the summer of 2020 the Network responds directly to the needs of unsheltered camps in Old Town and around Laurelhurst Park. They ask the homeless what they need and on a weekly basis, work to provide it. This includes vegan food, a variety of supplies and personal care products. Their motto is Engage – Listen – Respond.
The Bybee Lakes Hope Center is another important service that helps the homeless to work toward their return to a stable lifestyle. A grant from the United Way is funding the expansion of their facility in the old Wapato Jail that will serve 300 homeless people.
Approximately one year ago the SE Uplift Coalition of Neighborhoods formed its Houselessness Action Committee to improve the lives of everyone living in SE Portland.
They serve as a forum for information and discussion about issues related to houselessness and hold meetings on the fourth Monday of the month at 5:30 pm via Zoom. For more information about the committee and the meetings go to seuplift.org.
With the 2022 Roadmap, the funding provided in recent years and the many organizations working to address homelessness it is hoped that solutions to the regional housing challenges will soon be implemented.
The 2022 Roadmap is available at heretogetheroregon.org.