Despite new programs and money, county homeless tide still growing
More than two years after the City Council first declared a housing state of emergency, services funded by state and local governments are unable to keep up with the increasing number of homeless people.
Leaders including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland city Commissioner Nick Fish have repeatedly said that permanent housing is the only real solution to homelessness, especially supportive housing that includes social services.
But as winter approached, officials called attention to the lack of emergency shelter space and pushed to open new shelters, sometimes in the face of public opposition. The drive for more shelters reflects what Oregon Gov. Kate Brown described as an "unprecedented increase" in demand for such services in a Dec. 4 letter to the Oregon Legislature seeking more than $2.5 million for additional homeless family assistance in Multnomah County.
"Due to these unprecedented numbers, the family shelter system is at a breaking point," Brown wrote to the co-chairs of the Legislature's Interim Ways & Means Committee.
Brown announced her request — part of a statewide $5 million proposal — during a recent press conference at the largest family shelter in Multnomah County. It is operated by Human Solutions, a nonprofit housing and service provider, in a former strip club in Southeast Portland.
After originally averaging 220 adults and children in that shelter and overflow spaces last spring, the organization saw its count top 300 for the first time in August and then approach 500 people this fall.
The average stay for a family is now 65 days, nearly three times longer than three years ago. And now, after nearly two years of providing no-turn-away space for any family in need, Human Solutions has had to put families on a waiting list.
According to Brown's letter, more than half the families now seeking shelter are coming from outside Multnomah County.
"The county's no-turn-away family shelter has noted a rise in clients coming from surrounding communities. Two recent censuses at the no-turn-away family shelter illustrated that only 45 percent of head of households identified Multnomah County as their place of origin," Brown wrote.
Kafoury also attended the press conference, and said, "Today, Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the state are working together like never before. But the need is greater than we have seen before."
Before that press conference, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler helped publicize the recent opening of a winter family shelter at Congregation Beth Israel in Northwest Portland. He also appeared with Kafoury before a largely hostile audience at a Dec. 18 community meeting to defend opening a 100-bed shelter in a vacant grocery store on Southeast Foster Road by the end of next summer. The meeting happened shortly after the county submitted paperwork to open a permanent 200-bed shelter in an empty warehouse in the Old Town/Chinatown area that is opposed by the neighborhood association there.
The county and city also have launched a Home for the Holidays campaign with the goal of finding permanent housing for 40 homeless families, which has been largely successful.
Since the council first declared a housing emergency in October 2015, it has approved tens of millions of additional dollars for affordable housing projects. Portland voters also approved a $258.4 million affordable housing bond at the November 2016 general election that the Portland Housing Bureau is beginning to spend.
But the new focus on emergency shelters strongly suggests the number of homeless in Multnomah County is continuing to increase beyond the 4,177 identified during the most recent count conducted last February.
Worse on West Coast
Official figures show the number of homeless people in Multnomah County increased 10 percent between 2015 and 2017. That is almost twice as fast as the state as a whole, where the homeless population increased 5.5 percent between those two years.
Both figures come from the Point-in-Time homeless counts required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for local governments and social service agencies to qualify for federal funding. They are included in HUD's recently released 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
As in Oregon, the homeless population is not increasing evenly across the country. In fact, it has increased less than 1 percent nationally, and that was the first increase in seven years, the report says. The number of homeless people actually decreased in 30 states and Washington D.C.
The biggest increases were in West Coast states such as Oregon, where affordable housing is scarce, the report says.
"In many high-cost areas of our country, especially along the West Coast, the severe shortage of affordable housing is manifesting itself on our streets," HUD Secretary Ben Carson wrote in a statement accompanying the release of the report. "With rents rising faster than incomes, we need to bring everybody to the table to produce more affordable housing and ease the pressure that is forcing too many of our neighbors into our shelters and onto our streets. This is not a federal problem — it's everybody's problem."
Rents, home prices spiking
Housing affordability in the Portland area is suffering because rents and home values are increasing faster than incomes, according to the most recent monthly report from the Zillow real estate tracking firm. Both will continue outpacing increases in earnings next year, too, according to Zillow's November Housing Market Report.
The median Portland-area rent increased 4.6 percent to $1,879 since last November, the report says. Rents are expected to increase another 4.7 percent next year.
Home values are increasing even faster, the report says. In the Portland area, the median home value increased 5.7 percent to $307,700 since last November. The median price is expected to increase another 3.7 percent over the next year.
On the other hand, the increases have slowed recently, Zillow reported:
"Portland rents are growing at one of the fastest paces among the largest housing markets in the country. Still, this is nothing like the 9 percent annual increases renters were facing two years ago," said Skylar Olsen, a senior Zillow economist.
"With rents continuing to grow rapidly, demand for homes for sale is likely to stay high, while saving for the down payment is becoming harder and harder. Home values are also growing relatively quickly, but again are moving much slower than they were at the beginning of the year, a welcome sign for those entering the market as home buyers," Olsen said.
According to the report, rents and home values are increasing faster than incomes across most of the country. But the increases in housing costs are higher on the West Coast.
Sacramento leads the way, with the median rent up 7.5 percent since last November to $1,829. It is followed by a Southern California city, Riverside, where the median rent increased 6.2 percent to $1,847. Seattle is third, with the median rent increasing 5.4 percent to $2,203.
When it comes to increases in home values, San Jose leads the nation, with the median value increasing 17.4 percent to $1,128,300 since last November. Las Vegas follows, with the median value increasing 13.8 percent to $243,000. And Seattle is in third place again, with the median value increasing 12.3 percent to $463,800.