A coalition of homeless service providers and advocacy groups met Thursday to ask elected leaders and landowners in Portland to help house 3,000 people by the end of the year.
The call was a rebuke to plans bubbling recently within Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s administration that prioritize large temporary shelters — notably, a proposal floated in January by Assistant Mayor Sam Adams to create three shelters for 1,000 people and force people to move into them. . The idea was dismissed by advocates and providers as both impractical and inhumane.
Instead of forcing those 3,000 people into emergency shelters, as the mayor’s office has suggested, advocates for people living on the outside say the smartest solution is to offer homes already built.
“There’s a lot of frenetic energy coming out of this office,” said Kaia Sand, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group and alternative newspaper Street Roots and one of the architects behind the push for 3. 000 units. “So we’re saying, ‘Let’s just be smarter. We have lots of good ideas. Instead of just going around in circles and throwing things out there, let’s just start snacking.
Look for government money
At a press conference on Thursday, Sand joined leaders of a dozen other rights organizations in calling on landlords to pawn at least one of their empty units to house people currently living in the street.
The coalition also called on Portland and Multnomah County to provide vouchers and rental subsidies for these units and for nonprofits to provide comprehensive services. These are the various services that people might need when they move in, such as mental health care and addiction treatment.
Katrina Holland, executive director of homeless service provider JOIN, said her agency is already doing this through its core leasing program. Under this program, the NPO becomes the tenant of a dwelling and can sublet it to a person living on the street. Holland said the program also provides comprehensive tenant services.
She said the scheme has been a success, with customers staying in their apartments, interest from landlords and a surplus of inventory. She said she checked apartments.com on Wednesday night and found 6,966 units available – at the same time as waiting lists for social housing stretched on for years.
The problem she continues to struggle with, she said, is the reluctance of local governments to pay rent and other associated costs to get people into these units. Holland said the county has started participating and is looking to expand the program. But she said the city remained “unresponsive”.
“Ideas thrown around by the mayor all cost money — millions of dollars in fact,” Holland said. “What we’re saying is, let’s choose housing. It’s a smarter investment. It’s more responsible with taxpayers’ money.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement that she is currently working with providers on how to expedite people’s transition into housing and “stay tuned.”
“I’m excited about this idea and the energy behind it; we all want to attract more people to existing apartments,” she said. “We know that one of our biggest challenges is gaining access to empty units that we know exist.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement he was open to collaboration.
“All options are on the table as my administration continues to move forward with housing initiatives. I am ready to work with anyone and everyone to find compassionate and safe solutions,” he said.
The coalition did not provide a figure on the cost of moving 3,000 people into available housing by the end of the year. Holland said JOIN spends between $47,000 and $52,000 per household per year on its primary leasing program — which includes staff to support the tenant, the cost of rent and utility payments. Julia Delgado of the Urban League of Portland said her organization has a similar senior rental program that caters to single adults. It costs them $28,000 per person per year.
Providers say renting already built housing is a much more cost-effective and efficient approach to addressing the housing crisis than funneling millions of dollars into temporary shelters, which won’t end people’s homelessness.
“What’s happening now are long-term stays in shelters that cost phenomenally and don’t lead to housing,” Delgado said. “We just want to ignore this intervention and go straight to housing. So the costs may arrive earlier, but they are not over.
Over the past few months, Mayor and Commissioner Dan Ryan have been pushing to build more shelters. Ryan is spearheading an initiative to create six outdoor villages, each of which can accommodate 60 people. In total, the six villages will cost around $20 million. The mayor said he wants to build shelters for more than 60 people.
Two homeless people who spoke at Thursday’s conference vehemently opposed the massive shelters being pushed by the mayor. George McCarthy, a Street Roots salesman, said he’s been to seven shelters in three states. To each, he said, he had no privacy, felt infantilized by curfews and found himself “warehoused with a lot of struggling people”.
“It sets a horrible precedent where you can basically raise rents to the point where people can’t afford them, have them thrown out on the street and moved them to another neighborhood very easily,” McCarthy said. “If you really want people to be able to be independent, you have to have the ability to have enough privacy and security to develop the necessary mindset.”
The coalition claiming 3,000 homes includes 13 organizations, including civil rights organization Urban League of Portland, environmental advocacy group Verde and homeless service providers and Street Roots advocates, Transition Projects, Human Solutions and JOIN.
In addition to offering more units, the group wants the local government to purchase properties that can be immediately converted into affordable housing by following the turnkey project roadmap model, an agency-wide program State aimed at transforming motels and hotels into affordable housing. They also want to ensure that the selection criteria for units that become available do not exacerbate racial disparities within the region’s homeless population. The most recent count of the area’s homeless population in 2019 showed black people made up 16% of Multnomah County’s homeless population, but only 7% of the general population.
That tally showed more than 4,000 people were homeless in the county, though experts warn that number likely increased during the pandemic.