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My View: The way forward on homelessness

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When it comes to homelessness, Portlanders are full of questions. Why are there so many people sleeping on our streets and in our parks? Have we unwittingly brought this upon ourselves? What can we do about it? The sense of urgency around these important questions — as well as the political undertones that accompany them — seems to be on the rise. So then, what to make of our homelessness crisis?

At Transition Projects, my colleagues and I spend our days trying to help people escape the streets and achieve stable housing. Predictably, it’s not easy work.

Those we’re trying to assist face significant personal barriers, including mental illness, drug dependence, discrimination, bad credit, post-traumatic stress, and little to no income. Many are ready and eager to push through these barriers; others aren’t there yet. But regardless of the personal barriers that people experiencing homelessness face, the reality is that our city is facing barriers of its own — structural barriers that have and will continue to block our path toward a solution.

As we consider possible ways forward, it’s important to keep two of these overarching barriers squarely in our crosshairs: immediate shelter, and very affordable housing. Challenging in their own rights, these factors are also closely linked. To move the needle on homelessness, we’ll need to make meaningful progress on both.

So then, where to start? How about with more than 1,800 people sleeping on our streets each night ...

Shelter

While many large cities around the county can provide shelter to 70 percent or more of those experiencing homelessness, Portland has shelter space for only about half. The shelter beds we do have are filled every night of the year, whether in late July or early January — every bed, every night. And make no mistake: Most of those sleeping outside want in.

At the end of August, we conducted a one-day poll of the nearly 600 people who visited our Day Center at the Bud Clark Commons. In response to the question “Where did you sleep last night?” half told us they had spent the night outdoors. And when we asked, “If there was a shelter bed available, would you sleep there?” just over half said yes. This reality is evidenced not just by polling; the waiting lists for the shelters we operate have never been longer. If you’re a homeless man, expect to wait six months to get in. A woman? Closer to seven.

On its own, a shelter bed is no guarantee that the person sleeping in it will soon escape homelessness. But without a safe place off the streets at night, the already challenging climb out of homelessness becomes that much tougher and more dangerous, particularly for women.

For African-Americans, the situation is especially acute: Over the past two years, the number of African-Americans living on Portland’s streets has increased by 48 percent, an alarming trend for a community that is already significantly overrepresented in the homeless population. In any case, the ultimate goal for all those we’re assisting remains the same: permanent housing. But until Portland is able to put a serious dent in its shortfall of very affordable housing, those experiencing homelessness will continue to need a safe place to sleep — tonight, and for many nights to come.

Very affordable housing

Everyone knows that Portland has an extremely tight housing market these days. But imagine what that market feels like to a middle-age veteran with no income and no savings to her name.

Simply put, there is no greater obstacle to solving our homelessness crisis than the lack of very affordable housing. According to the Welcome Home Coalition, only six out of 10 households with incomes below 50 percent of median family income (about $35,000 for a family of four) can find affordable housing options in the metro region. That translates to a shortfall of more than 40,000 very affordable rental units in our area.

Since those experiencing homelessness tend to fall below the 30 percent of MFI threshold, their prospects of successfully competing in this housing market are especially daunting. To be sure, closing this housing gap will represent a heavy lift for our community. The effort will take years, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and require sustained political commitment along the way. But ultimately, there will be no solution to Portland’s homelessness crisis without it.

In charting a way forward, we’re faced with essentially two choices. We can continue to tinker around the margins, and resign ourselves to living with more of the same result — nearly 2,000 children, women and men living beneath awnings, on doorsteps of businesses, in parks, under overpasses, and along sidewalks throughout the city. Or we call homelessness out for what it is — one of our city’s greatest civic and moral failings — and attack it accordingly.

That plan of attack will need to draw support from various quarters, from government to the business community to — not least — the tax-paying public. As that plan comes together, it must zero in on the two most prominent structural bottlenecks we face: shelter and very affordable housing.

Over the next few years, we’ll need to increase our investments in both. But over time, as more very affordable rental units come on line, we’ll be able to scale back on our investments in shelter. That reduction in the need for shelter will, in fact, serve as the bellwether for our success on housing.

Expanding shelter opportunities for those living on our streets will require two main ingredients: relatively modest amounts of city and county funding, and political leadership. The latter will be essential in navigating current zoning restrictions that make it extremely difficult to site shelter facilities in our community.

Expanding the availability of very affordable housing also will require both funding and political leadership, but on a much larger scale. Funding will need to draw from multiple resource streams, including fees and taxes, and be accompanied by corresponding policy and regulatory measures at state and local levels that help to incentivize the creation of affordable housing.

Debate over the right mix of these resourcing options is underway, aided by lessons learned in other U.S. cities. Look for this discussion to take on greater urgency in the coming months as political leaders, the business community, and voters have their chance to weigh in on specific proposals as they’re unveiled.

While the path ahead will no doubt be challenging, the direction we need to travel is clear. With smart investments designed to break through the bottlenecks around shelter and very affordable housing, Portlanders wondering what can be done about our homelessness crisis will finally have some answers.

George Devendorf is executive director of Transition Projects, a Portland-based social service agency that assists people transitioning from homelessness to housing. Website: http://www.tprojects.org