Portland takes page from Eugene on homelessness
On the surface, Eugene's not much different from Portland.
Its leaves are falling, just like in Portland; its residents are enjoying post-work beverages on a Friday afternoon, just like in Portland.
And, just like Portland, Eugene is enduring a housing and homelessness crisis.
But over the past decade or so, the city, just a two-hour drive south, has been working diligently on some particularly creative solutions for those without shelter. Solutions that some in Portland have been looking at lately as a model for its own crisis.
While Portland recently passed the framework on how to spend its sorely needed $258 million affordable housing bond, those units will take some time to come online.
A growing number of people are living in their cars and RVs (there are less directly on the streets but more in homeless shelters, based on Point in Time count data), demonstrating a need for legal places to stay until more housing is available.
In both cities, nonprofits and faith-based organizations are banding together and working with local government to install things like villages and other temporary housing.
However, in Portland, it's more of a rumble, while in Eugene, it's a well-oiled machine.
In Portland, the group Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, known as MACG, has been hard at work pushing for more affordable housing.
The group successfully lobbied Portland city officials in 2015, around the time of the housing emergency declaration, to direct 45 percent of tax increment financing dollars to the Housing Bureau for affordable housing projects in urban renewal districts.
While construction of housing slowly comes to fruition, the group now is focusing on Clackamas County projects, including a large-scale tiny-house project that will house veterans — modeled after Opportunity Village in Eugene.
"It's just as bad in Clackamas County as in Portland," said MACG organizer Mary Nemmers. "If you look at zoning laws, they are just as prohibitive."
Nemmers said they launched efforts there after the Springwater Corridor Trail was swept last year, displacing hundreds who camped there.
In Multnomah County, a smaller-scale tiny-home project was started this summer in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood, for 14 homeless women. It is a pilot project that is scheduled to end after a year.
Additionally, the county began a pilot project where they would install a handful of small Accessory Dwelling Units for homeless people in willing residents' backyards, but those haven't come online yet.
Although projects are taking some time, Nemmers said, she thinks things are accelerating and organizations are getting in gear, especially ahead of winter. Last winter, four homeless people died of hypothermia in Multnomah County.
"I think there's kind of a rumbling," Nemmers said. "I think momentum is growing."
Not time for reinventing wheel
Recently a faith-based organization called Leaven Community worked to push the city's Bureau of Development Services, overseen by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, to relax code enforcement for people living in vehicles — modeled after a long-standing car camping program in Eugene.
Eudaly announced Oct. 8 that the bureau would deprioritize her bureau's enforcement of complaints against people parked in cars, RVs and tiny houses on wheels on private property.
"We just borrowed from (the city of Eugene)," rather than reinventing the wheel, said Marshall Runkel, Eudaly's chief of staff. "They did a bunch of work with figuring it out."
Eugene's rules, he said, "seemed reasonable and seemed like a great place (to start), at least for a get-go. It's just a common-sense thing — we're in the middle of a housing emergency."
Anne Williams, director of housing programs at St. Vincent DePaul in Eugene since 1992, said: "This is a very large problem, and we all need to be participating. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. Nobody has time for that." (She said one person died in Eugene last winter, but not during the time their emergency winter shelters were activated.)
The Leaven Community is part of MACG.
"We are meeting, and we're working to build relationships with financial institutions and developers for creating this," said LaVeta Gilmore Jones, the co-director and organizer at Leaven Community. "We know that more will have to be done, but this is the starting place, the beginning place to look at the different ways affordable housing can be created in Portland, or spaces for housing can be created in Portland."
One of Leaven Community's first projects is working with Portsmouth Union, a North Portland church, to construct a multifamily complex on its property.
It's not to say that Portland is behind Eugene — the focus just has been on getting money for larger-scale, long-term housing projects.
St. Vincent DePaul, a nonprofit organization that provides food, clothing and shelter for the needy, has deep roots in Lane County.
It has one location in Portland that mainly focuses on food boxes. But in Eugene, the organization has its hands in just about everything to do with homelessness.
"Ultimately, if you're on the street (in Eugene), you'll run into St. Vincent DePaul," said Keith Heath, the manager of the city's overnight parking program and of Eugene Service Station, a day center for the homeless.
Terry McDonald, St. Vincent DePaul's executive director, cautions that although Eugene has lots of short-term and transitional programs — a car camping program, rest stops, one tiny home village and another in the midst of construction — they have not addressed the idea of housing-first, meaning placing homeless people directly into permanent housing. And a large housing bond is seemingly out of reach.
"We have trouble just getting the police budget passed every year ... so that's why we have to get creative. Passing a bond is unthinkable," he said.
Like MACG and others rising up, he's relying more upon the "common good," something he worries, these days, is in short supply.
"The mood in the country is dark — there is a me-first mentality now. If we have no common good, then we aren't a people; we're a collection of individuals. The common good is the fabric that pulls us together," he said.
Here's a look at some of the programs to address homelessness in Eugene:
The Eugene City Council approved establishment of this 30-unit, self-managed "micro-housing site" in 2012, for space up to 45 people. The site was built in 2013, and has a mixture of tiny homes and Conestoga huts. There's a year-to-year lease for the land with the city.
It's a "transitional" village, meaning each resident must be actively working to move on, although there is no set deadline.
Of the 22 people who departed the village in 2016, seven did so after residing there more than two years.
Opportunity Village provides water, electricity and internet service for communal purposes, but individual homes don't have those amenities.
People who apply to be in the village must go through a vetting process, and then are placed on a waitlist. Once they're on the waitlist, they can have access to some of the site's amenities, including paying one dollar to use Opportunity's shower facilities.
There's also a seniority system where people get access to a Conestoga hut and then move up a tier to a tiny home.
It's operated by the nonprofit SquareOne Villages, which is now in construction on its second tiny-home project in Eugene called Emerald Village, which are permanent low-income units rather than transitional.
The program has helped Alice Gentry, 66, a lifelong Eugene resident who retired from working in the Fred Meyer Garden Center and then realized she didn't have enough Social Security money to live on. She then ventured into the woods for five months, she said, then slept in her car for nine months before getting into Opportunity over a year ago. Now she's getting a home at Emerald Village.
She's excited to have something permanent.
"Ever go to the pound and find a puppy, and they were so excited because they found their forever home?" she said. "That's me."
Conestoga huts are sprinkled throughout Eugene at different designated sites for homeless folks, including the city's "Rest Stops."
They can be found in numerous little nooks of the city, easily identified by their dome shape that resembles the back of a covered wagon. They're sort of a step below a tiny house, considered a vehicle by city code, and are constructed using very basic materials. The inside resembles a long closet, with just enough space for a bed.
They're constructed by Eugene nonprofit Community Supported Shelters, which also helps operate the city's Rest Stops.
In 2013, Eugene passed an ordinance creating the Permitted Overnight Sleeping Pilot Program, which allows up to 20 people to sleep in tents, trailers or Conestoga huts at designated, council-approved sites.
The city enters into an agreement with a third party — such as a church or business — that operates and supervises the site.
The four rest stop sites are all operated by Community Supported Shelters, and also operate as a transitional program.
On Feb. 27 of this year, the Eugene City Council removed the sunset date for the program, allowing it to continue.
Rest Stops and Opportunity Village together served 296 people in 2016.
Sixty-five percent of Rest Stop participants were from Lane County.
Portland has one sanctioned rest stop, Right 2 Dream Too.
Car camping, or permitted overnight sleeping program
St. Vincent DePaul oversees the city's Overnight Parking Program, a program tied to the city's permitted overnight sleeping ordinance adopted in 2002. The Rest Stop program also operates under this umbrella.
These rules were a model for Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's recent announcement regarding deprioritizing enforcement of complaints against people living in RVs and tiny homes.
There are 44 sites for vehicles in Lane County, with more than 100 total slots. There are sometimes one or two people in a slot. There are 100 people on the car camping wait list.
The program is year-round, while St. Vincent provides sanitary facilities, camper screening, placement and linkage to services.
Instead of commissioning its transportation division to enforce illegal car camping violations, St. Vincent DePaul staff agreed to be first responders in attempts to find people a legal spot to sleep.
Portland population: 639,863
Portland's most recent homeless count: 4,177
Eugene population: 166,575
Eugene's most recent homeless count: 1,529
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 HUD Point in Time counts
While Eudaly's announcement allows for up to three vehicles in parking lots of nonresidential structures, including a religious institution, business or public entity, Eugene's allows for six.
Dusk to Dawn program
The Dusk to Dawn program — started in 2015 to address even higher numbers of people needing a place to sleep at night — is essentially multiple military-style tents at certain spots in Eugene that only operates for the winter. Last winter it served 360 people, starting on Nov. 1.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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This story originally wrote that there was a growing number of people sleeping on the streets — but Multnomah County's Point in Time count showed that that number actually went down, and more are sleeping in homeless shelters.