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Solutions, not barriers needed for homeless crisis

By now, there is consensus in the Portland region: we have a homelessness crisis.

Portland City Council declared a state of emergency and, with Multnomah County, has taken some commendable steps forward, promising millions of dollars for solutions. Those millions will be allocated by A Home For Everyone, an ambitious collaboration between Multnomah County, Portland, Gresham, Home Forward and virtually every social service provider and advocacy group serving the homeless. This group has a nine-member executive committee and a 32-member coordinating committee — lots of dedicated people working at a very big table — collecting data, analyzing and strategizing a path forward for our community.

In the meantime, on any given night there are nearly 2,000 men, women and children sleeping outside, primarily in tent camps where they are vulnerable to weather, assault, exploitation and addiction.

Last month, the Portland Business Alliance invited a nationally-recognized leader in the effort to address homelessness, Lloyd Pendleton from Salt Lake City, Utah, for a community conversation. Ten years ago, Utah leaders created a plan to end chronic homelessness and they have achieved some stunning successes. They focused on permanently housing their chronically homeless population, trying lots of small-scale ideas, moving quickly past the failures and expanding on the successes. Today, a significant majority of Utah’s formerly chronically homeless are still in homes.

We can all agree that Portland is not Salt Lake and Oregon is not Utah. Does this mean we should disregard Utah’s experience? I bet there are 2,000 men, women and children who hope we do not. For them, we need to be open to shortening our race to success, no matter where help or good ideas come from.

Pendleton made another point that resonated with me: instead of focusing on barriers, focus on solutions. It is okay to try something and find it doesn’t work, but the emphasis must to be on trying. That sounds easy, but are we really doing it in Portland? Are we looking at empty buildings and saying why not? Or are we stuck on saying no?

Two great examples of what I am talking about were recently provided by Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. Perceived “barriers” squashed efforts to open the Sears Armory in Southwest Portland as a temporary shelter — legal, administrative and logistic. Mayor Hales swept them aside to make it work as an emergency women’s shelter this winter. Guess what? It is working. Similarly, Chair Kafoury didn’t focus on barriers when the county approved financial support to a local nonprofit that wanted to re-purpose a closed strip club into a much-needed shelter. Both of these projects are small good ideas that didn’t get bogged down in “approval analyses.” And now they can make a real impact for our homeless Portlanders.

Thank you Mayor Hales and Chair Kafoury.

I wonder if the same thinking should be applied to other vacant buildings like the Wapato facility in North Portland. Built as a corrections and treatment facility a decade ago, Wapato has sat empty since it was completed, costing taxpayers about $300,000 a year to maintain. Should we use a portion of this empty facility as a small emergency shelter pilot project? To be honest, my initial reaction might be like yours when you read this. It offends my progressive sensibilities to think about housing homeless in a facility designed as a jail. Then again, I wonder if a woman who was victimized last night while sleeping in a temporary encampment cares about my sensibilities. Maybe we should overcome every “no,” open part of Wapato and see if some homeless Portlanders will voluntarily choose a safe, dry and sanitary place over another night in a tent in a temporary camp.

I see real progress when we try small projects like the Sears Armory and a re-purposed strip club. Let’s support nimble ideas that get people off the street this winter while Home for Everyone takes the time it needs to develop a permanent solution. Let’s support measured risk-taking while keeping an eye on the objective: that people in our city should not be forced to sleep on sidewalks, in parks, in encampments and under bridges. Portland is better than this.

Mitch Hornecker is executive vice president and chief legal officer, West Region, at Howard S. Wright Balfour Beatty Construction. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.