Homelessness is a dehumanizing and deeply traumatic experience that no person should have to endure. The reasons are complex. They include addiction and mental illness and the lack of treatment and a lack of affordable housing.
Last year 80 people died living on the Portland streets, mostly due to addiction, homicide, exposure and illnesses, often untreated because of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Allowing people to camp on our streets is misguided compassion. Allowing people to die on our streets is not compassionate at all. Compassion is not allowing people to suffer from lethal substance abuse on our sidewalks, drifting towards death as we walk by. Compassion is not allowing a mentally ill person to suffer a severe psychotic episode due to lack of treatment and lack of sleep because of fear at night.
It is made more difficult to address what is generally a local issue when homeless in-migration from outside of Oregon results in two steps backward for each success our desperately underfunded programs achieve:
- 35% of unsheltered are homeless upon arrival to Portland (715 ÷ 2037, Point In Time, Pg 54)
- The majority of these persons are not from Oregon (Point in Time, Pg 55)
- Unsheltered homeless increased 22% from 2017 to 2019 (Point in Time, Pg 12)
Our City Has Normalized Homeless Encampments
Last year, only 15% of campsites were cleaned and cleared by the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, the department that has replaced our Police Bureau with enforcing our illegal camping ordinances. They cleaned only 2,828 campsites out of 18,853 reports received (35,005 total reports received but some were of the same campsite). With 457,461 needles and 8,000 gallons of human waste collected from just 2,828 camps, the sanitation and safety concerns are staggering.
In Portland, by law, unsanctioned camping is not permitted. However, when camps are cleaned up, our rules require campers to be provided at least 48 hours advance notice so they can pack up and vacate the area. This rule was created several years ago to accommodate those who were down and out, to show compassion. However, this is not managed and encampments remain, sometimes for months on end.
Our police, who are on the front lines caring for our city, have driven or walked by these camps dozens of times but are ordered by their superiors at the direction of our City Council to stand down. All the while the quality of life for both the homed and homeless suffers, in the case of the homeless, sometimes with loss of life.
We Must Work Together
We need to engage our police and justice system, not in a punitive fashion but to uphold our laws and values. Writing an abundance of citations will not solve illegal camping. For example, Boise only cited six people last year for illegal camping. However, Boise has only 61 unsheltered homeless per night versus Portland with 2,037. The difference: The Mayor, City Council, Police, Fire, justice system and homeless service agencies all work TOGETHER to communicate to homeless encampments that illegal camping is not allowed and follow up immediately and as needed. No bureaucracy, just a partnership that involves all stakeholders.
Homeless encampments are illegal.
Now let’s focus on SOLUTIONS:
Whatever It Takes – We must provide Safety, Shelter, Security, & Sleep
We all love Portland and want our city to thrive. Quality of life is important for everyone and living on the streets is not a safe option. We have to act to find housing and safe shelters for the vulnerable people in our city. Our emergency shelters and transitional housing are working. Using diversion (rental assistance, etc) and problem-solving techniques, these two homeless services have 21% less clients today than two years ago. But as our city comes together and we begin to address our unsheltered and reduce camping, we must provide additional access points and services to compliment emergency shelters when they are full or provide a different access point altogether for the chronically homeless who are service resistant and reluctant to use an emergency shelter. The following are low cost solutions to provide more and different access points to ensure our most vulnerable have a safe place to sleep every night and to assist with breaking the cycle of homelessness:
Pop-Up Temporary Shelters – Everyone needs somewhere to sleep and shelter
Establish a network of Pop-Up Shelters (BEDDOWN) using parking garages and spaces that are left empty at night. We have dozens of these structures throughout the city. Best case scenario are parking structures with adjacent facilities that include bathroom and showers (e.g. gyms, community centers, etc. that close at night). Combining our public and private resources could provide a safe and clean alternative to sleeping on the street. Without a home or shelter there is no way to protect yourself or your limited possessions, to sleep without fear or to get truly rested and ready for the next day. For a person already struggling with mental illness, addiction or trying to keep a job, the lack of sleep only aggravates an already difficult situation. By having known locations for the unsheltered to sleep, case managers could now meet with them to (1) assess their particular housing and service needs and (2) work to get them permanently housed. Pop-Up Shelters help provide stability each night and a steppingstone out of homelessness. We must provide a better alternative than sleeping on the streets.
Unsheltered to sheltered guest:
"It's the first time I have had a dream in years"
With minimal capital required and limited operating expenses, this approach enables a temporary and fiscally sound decision that better matches the ebb and flow of our homeless population. This is only temporary. We want to end homelessness.
Decriminalize Homelessness - Homeless Court Program
52% of all arrests in Portland are of homeless people, the vast majority of those from an outstanding warrant for low-level and non-violent offenses. After spending two weeks with San Diego’s public defenders and mayor’s office observing their Homeless Court Program (HCP) – a partnership between District Attorney, City Attorney, Superior Court, Public Defender and Homeless-Service Agency’s – I am confident this program will reduce arrests significantly and counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society. This is how it works:
When HCP participants voluntarily address their underlying root cause of homelessness in partnership with an approved homeless-service agency, they are in a stronger position to comply with court orders. So long as the homeless client is successfully going through the homeless service agency program:
- The agency completes a Multnomah County records search for their client
- Writes an advocacy letter to the HCP outlining the progress their client is making and
- Lists all outstanding warrants or cases with fines/fees that are acting as a barrier for the client getting out of the homeless cycle
- The client and their advocate receive a counseling date with the public defender
- The public defender dockets all outstanding warrants/cases for a court date one week later where the public defender, district attorney and judge travel to the homeless-service agency for an official hearing and cases are dismissed based on “credit for time served”
The participants are well deserving as they have spent an average of 291 days in their homeless-service program.
It’s a FRESH START for everyone: The homeless participant has removed a huge roadblock for gaining stable, long term housing; It’s often the first positive interaction a homeless person has had with our judicial system; Police are freed up to spend more time helping ALL Portlanders (Portland arrests could fall from 52% to 33% [“one in three”]); Court system administrative burden is reduced as we admit that we’re never going to get money out of a homeless person.
Housing NOT Handcuffs – Homelessness and Incarceration
Homeless > Arrest > Jail > Homeless…We can change outcomes. We are housing our homeless in jail, the second highest cost of housing except for hospitals. Programs like Centers for Employment Opportunity (CEO), that are NOT in Oregon but should be, help break the cycle. CEO reaches out to those soon to be released from incarceration, their most vulnerable point, to offer an opportunity to build a foundation for a stable, productive life for themselves, their families and our community. CEO participants returning from prison are provided immediate paid employment, skills training, ongoing career support and transitional housing. CEO works primarily with municipalities and non-profits like the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Clean Start, respectively. These entry level positions work in teams with CEO supervisor’s cleaning streets, clearing culverts, removing graffiti, etc. When combining CEO and the Homeless Court Program, participants shape a stronger future for themselves AND the crippling weight of debt is removed which helps clear their path to permanent housing. Most importantly, recidivism rates that are as high as 70% are reduced significantly and the cycle is broken.
Reducing and Ending Homelessness
Built for Zero (BFZ) is a movement to end homelessness across Portland. BFZ is a proven approach where we rely on daily, weekly and monthly specific names of those that are homeless, not counting once per year. We focus on specific populations and then do whatever it takes to get those populations to Zero. Our focus should begin with these unsheltered populations:
- Families – Absolutely no child should have homelessness normalized (12 families)
- Veterans – Portland has ample supply of housing vouchers for the men and women we honor (230 vets)
- Elderly (24 70+)
We maintain our progress and then expand our focus to new populations. Then, we scale our success to find permanent housing for everyone. It is not an overnight solution but a pragmatic far reaching, yet achievable first goal.
Shelter Vacancy – “Find a Shelter” App
On average, 200 shelter beds go unused each night. Calling 211 info is a wonderful resource for shelter referral information but requires calls to each shelter to check availability. Portland needs a shelter web portal to push this information directly to the user via a mobile app. Providing quick access to homeless people in need, outreach workers combing campsites offering help and our new Portland Street Response teams, is critical to delivering services faster to our most vulnerable. With over 400 more shelter beds available in 2019, our utilization of this very important resource will grow worse without improved coordination. Portland is one of the most talented tech savvy cities in the world. Let’s create a best in class tool for Portland and the nation.
Portland Street Response
Portland Street Response pilot program dispatches teams of medics and peer support specialists (in place of firefighters or police) with training in de-escalation who can respond with compassion to 911 calls about people struggling with behavioral health crisis often the result of homelessness. At the absolute earliest, I believe we should fully fund this pilot program to reach the city in its entirety. Not every crisis is a crime. We need to match the right first responder to the crisis.
There is no one simple solution. I have had the pleasure of gaining knowledge from a huge number of Portlanders who work tirelessly to help solve the homeless crisis. I have traveled our nation visiting with other cities and meeting with experienced professionals, some with distinguished careers in our federal government in the field of homelessness, to better understand. There are many creative ideas and best practices that may work in Portland. I am ready to invest the time, effort and passion to see all our programs through to end homelessness.