Even the best new plans to reduce homelessness will take years to show results

February 16, 2023 5:30 am

Homeless camps have popped up in wooded urban areas across the state. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

In a new year, with new leadership, there’s a new plan a week to address Oregon’s chronic homelessness problems. 

Gov. Tina Kotek declared a homelessness state of emergency in most areas of the state on her first full day in office. Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson followed with a new Multnomah Housing Now program, designed to “turn(ing) urgency into action to tackle unsheltered homelessness.” And Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has continued to revamp and advance an ambitious city shelter program. 

Voters want action on homelessness, and politicians are responding in kind. But lessons learned over the past several years suggest that progress in solving the multiple problems of homelessness – from the lack of affordable housing to endemic addiction and mental illness — may take years to show results.  

That’s the tempered view of homelessness reduction strategies that I gleaned from a recent Oregon Bridge interview with John Tapogna, a data-driven economist who has done a deep dive into studies of homeless programs in other cities. 

Tapogna reports that most programs to date show scant returns in reducing homelessness. He cites a homeless prevention program in New York City that helped only six of 100 participants avoid homelessness and various transition programs in other cities that reported only 20 in 100 participants transitioning to stable housing. These programs were the best of those studied. But they barely made a dent in their cities’ homeless populations. 

Last November, Tapogna and Melissa Rowe at ECONorthwest released a detailed analysis of Los Angeles County’s homelessness programs. Their findings are instructive for the Portland area, since Metro’s Supportive Housing Measure was modeled on the Los Angeles initiative and more than doubled that county’s program budget on a per capita basis. 

The big takeaway from the ECONorthwest report is that services provided to homeless individuals, although clearly benefiting those individuals, “do not fully, nor instantaneously, translate into a broader, population-wide reduction of literal homelessness (i.e. the number of people living in shelters or on the street).”

The homeless population is dynamic, with some of the same people moving in and out of homelessness periodically and others replacing those on the streets who manage to move on.  In the absence of enough permanent, affordable housing, we’ve been witnessing a musical chairs game that seems to replace almost every newly-sheltered homeless person with another grabbing tent space on a nearby embankment.

This is why numerical goals of the kind announced by Multnomah County, to “move hundreds of people…directly from tents to apartments,” are regularly overwhelmed by the larger, systemic forces that sustain the homelessness problem. As happened in LA, providing more housing vouchers and placements in the midst of a housing shortage can exacerbate the musical chairs dynamic, in which more unsheltered individuals join those on the street competing for scarce housing units. 

Vega Pederson’s placement goals may be achievable. And it is encouraging to see her reach for short-term gains that her predecessor tended to dismiss as too modest and short-sighted. It’s just that, as Tapogna warns us, we shouldn’t expect to see any immediate reduction in the county’s unsheltered population from interventions of this kind.  

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposal for city-sponsored shelters offers safer and more humane locations for the homeless. But he’s been hounded by opponents who view shelters as inadequate, dead-end alternatives to stable housing – another example of how limited success in dealing with one aspect of homelessness can be blamed for failing to solve the larger problem.  

The perfect has too often been weaponized to oppose even incremental improvements for our homeless population, when the challenge is to connect short-term interventions to long-term solutions. 

The governor’s call for building new housing puts the long-term challenge in proper perspective. But her target of doubling housing production over the next decade has a whole new set of challenges to overcome.

Meanwhile, the ECONorthwest report concludes with six recommendations for making progress on the homeless front with the policy tools available today. These range from setting more realistic expectations to aligning the efforts of sometimes competing jurisdictions. 

I’d add two don’ts to the list.

Don’t overreach. Multnomah County’s Housing Now program includes the formation of a multi-agency group “focused on eliminating unsheltered homelessness in Portland’s central city over the next four months.” That’s an ambitious goal without a realistic plan that is unlikely to achieve its promised result.

And, to paraphrase Barack Obama, don’t do stupid stuff. For a recent example, see Portland’s building renovation project that cost $1,300 per square foot for dorm-like units with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Projects like these will try the public’s patience and undermine the support needed for long-term solutions.

Leaders need to show they’re learning from past mistakes and taking the best, next, short-term steps to the longer-term goals of reducing and eliminating homelessness. That kind of honesty and realism will be needed to keep the public on their side and their best efforts on track.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.