Commentary

Oregon needs a broad path to stem homelessness

January 19, 2024 5:30 am
People live in tents in northwest Portland.

People camp on the sidewalk near Old Town in Portland. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon’s leading political issue in recent years, homelessness, is also one of the most difficult to solve. 

A solution to the problem is unlikely to consist of a single silver bullet. It may be more of a targeted cocktail of solutions that attack the problem piecemeal – not the sort of thing well-suited to a political campaign’s talking points. 

That means the efforts highlighted by Oregon government and Gov. Tina Kotek in the last year, and for the year to come, ought to be considered the first steps in a much more broadly ranging effort. 

In the 2022 gubernatorial contest, all three major candidates agreed the problem was serious and called for a declaration of emergency – though they didn’t talk much about what the declaration might do. The focus does have reason: Oregon for years has had one of the highest rates of homelessness nationwide. 

Kotek signed an executive order a year ago which declared homelessness an emergency and this month extended it, partly with the intent of keeping some homeless shelters open. And she’s signed more, including Executive Order 24-03 to “refresh the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and direct them to develop plans for the governor’s consideration in response to the analysis” which was required in another executive order.

Beyond that, she recently pointed to other actions taken during her first year in office to diminish homelessness. The state has poured money into new affordable rental options, especially in rural areas around the state. The homeless shelter capacity has been increased by an estimated 1,032 beds, and the state reported finding housing for nearly 1,300 families that might otherwise have become homeless. The Oregon Housing and Community Service agency said it has awarded $7.5 million “towards developing housing for those who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness” in rural locations.

Has all that activity lessened homelessness in the state?

Many Oregonians probably would be doubtful. Homeless people still are widely visible, not only in Portland but in many communities around the state. 

Oregon doesn’t have a definitive number of homeless people, but we may know more when the closest we have to solid numbers – the annual “Point in Time” count – is conducted at the end of this month. Last year’s count for Oregon totalled 20,142, probably many more than the recent initiatives could have reached. The number has been rising rapidly: In 2020, the estimate was 14,655. The 2021 count reported far fewer people, but the count was likely skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond that, the relatively generic effort to build new residential apartments – a necessary first step in a state and nation with inadequate supplies of housing – covers only part of the problem. 

Homelessness is a common end result of a large array of causes, including high housing costs, but also substance abuse, domestic abuse, mental illness and more. 

The unhoused are distinct in many ways, their stories individual. Some are individuals, some are in family groups. Some need medical or social services, others don’t. Some are only briefly without a home, others for much longer. Some are camped on sidewalks, while others find limited shelter in vehicles, abandoned buildings or elsewhere. Some would reject assistance or support systems if made available; others would use them enthusiastically.  And problems vary by geographic location.

That means a lot of ideas will have to be floated, and a wide range of solutions – many of them targeted – will be needed. 

The advocacy group Friends of the Unsheltered has compiled a number of ideas. That group said, “as evidenced by many failed plans, it makes sense to pay particular attention to those efforts that have really solved the problem within local jurisdictions.” It cited successful localized efforts in Gresham and Eugene. 

Portland City Council candidate and former councilor Steve Novick – who has said, “We won’t truly solve the homelessness crisis until we solve the affordable housing crisis” – outlined a couple of examples of different ways of thinking about solutions in a Jan. 4 email, growing out of a discussion with “someone at the city” involved with homeless issues. 

Discussing the Clinton Triangle alternative housing site in southeast Portland, he said the costs have been high, but the “pods in the site, the little structures which actually have a door to close so people have privacy and safety, cost $25,000 apiece. That may sound like a lot, but as he pointed out, the city  could buy 7,000 of them for the amount the Metro homeless services tax generates in six months.” 

One of the problems with shelter, Novick said, is simply finding a place for them. His contact at the city noted that Washington County, and implicitly Clackamas as well, might have better topography for locating shelter sites.

Casting a wide net to solve the homeless problem will be the next step – for the state and community. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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