By Thomas A. Ped
The Revitalize Portland Coalition is pleased to see Governor Kotek and the Oregon Legislature have made solving homelessness a priority. House Bills 2001 and 5019 devote millions of dollars in new funding to attempt to address our state’s number one problem.
With any luck, this may get us a small part of the way there. But Oregon needs more, much more, to end homelessness in our communities.
More than a third of the $200 million in new funding will go to landlords and tenants purportedly to house 1,200 unsheltered people and avoid others from falling into homelessness.
And so, with some 15,000 unsheltered people in Oregon statewide, under the best of circumstances the Legislature’s latest effort will help less than 10% of those suffering in the streets.
This is not nearly enough. To help those who need it most, and make our city streets clean and safe, we need to think big.
The New Deal programs of the 1930’s helped bring our nation out of the Depression. President Johnson’s War on Poverty, which included now mainstays such as Job Corps and Head Start, lifted millions from economic deprivation.
It is time to act similarly on homelessness.
Some factors to consider:
We are in an addiction crisis. Thousands of our houseless contend daily with addiction to all manner of opioids and other drugs, and presently deadly fentanyl is running rampant through our population.
We are in a mental health crisis. Many of our houseless battle unimaginable mental health conditions, for which living independently is not an option. An article re-published recently in Willamette Week chronicled the tragedies that occur when those with chronic mental illness are housed and then ignored. See, 1981: Dammasch Is Being Emptied and Portland Can’t Handle All the Homeless, Jobless and Hopeless Mentally Ill, Willamette Week (March 11, 2023). Under the “Housing First” approach, most of the mentally ill simply suffer in squalor or end up back on the street.
We are in a government crisis. Our political leaders’ approaches to homelessness thus far have been fractured and disjointed. Our state, counties, and cities work independently of, and often at odds with each other. Without a strong, state-level coordinated approach, success is not possible.
We are in a law enforcement crisis. Our cities are overwhelmed by the criminal element that congregates around the houseless. State and county agencies devote few resources to public safety. Cities lack police and staffing anywhere near what is needed to deal with the most dangerous aspects of homelessness. Local business are forced to board up their windows and hire private security to try to stem the violence and vandalism that surround them. This is unjust and unfair.
We have reached a breaking point. Homelessness needs to be addressed and combatted by our government comprehensively and on a grand scale.
Any program should include the following:
Adequate numbers of shelter beds, safe rest villages, and additional beds at the Oregon State Hospital to meet the needs of the entire homeless population, especially including those with the most severe mental illnesses;
Addiction treatment, mental health counseling, vocational training, and all other services necessary to address the needs of the houseless;
Deployment of competent, trained outreach workers and tracking of individuals’ progress using data-driven, by-name list methodologies;
Enforcement of applicable criminal codes and statutes using as humane means as possible, including using diversion programs and drug courts, with prosecution as the last resort; and
Transparency of information among agencies and groups to monitor accountability and ensure our tax dollars are being used the most efficiently and for the greatest benefit.
Multnomah County is just beginning to implement some of these measures. But so far its work has been on the smallest of scales.
The private sector stands ready to help. In the 1970’s, the District Planning Organization (DPO) Task Force helped revitalize Portland. The Task Force was comprised of members of the city planning and housing authorities, neighborhood organizations, and the general public.
Our local business and real estate groups, neighborhood associations, faith-based organizations such as United in Spirit, and hundreds of non-profit entities are poised to provide such grass roots input and volunteer support once again.
We propose the formation of new task forces for public/private partnerships with our government leaders to implement a comprehensive homelessness program together. At RPC, our sub-committees on Homelessness, Crime and Safety, Economy and Housing, and Public Image, have been collecting real-time data on the true extent of houselessness in downtown Portland, supporting new law enforcement programs for community policing, and partnering with other groups on the ground to clean up our streets.
Our communities can do so much more in partnership with government. We call on our political leaders to give us the chance to help make meaningful change now.
About the author
Thomas A. Ped is an attorney with Williams Kastner in Portland. His practice focuses on construction and real estate matters. A founding member of Revitalize Portland Coalition, he serves as Board Secretary and as chair of the RPC Homelessness Subcommittee.