Our recap on the first symposium for change
On September 7th, the Revitalize Portland Coalition (RPC) held its first Issues Symposium diving into the issue of homelessness in Portland – what is working, what is not, and how we can be part of the solution. Over 80 real estate (CRE) members, representing a broad range of interests, came together at U.S. Bancorp Tower for a half-day Symposium organized by our Homelessness Committee. The event featured two sessions with Portland-area experts addressing current conditions and potential solutions.
The RPC Homelessness Subcommittee has been working diligently on its 8-Step Plan addressing homelessness in Portland. The symposium was a major part of step 1: “gather information from other jurisdictions having success in reducing homelessness.” After looking at local data, programs, and plans on homelessness, the group decided a more in-depth discussion with experts was needed – and that our members would benefit being a part of the conversation.
The symposium’s first session began with our Chairman Jordan Schnitzer calling for urgent – but smart – action. He detailed how Portland’s commercial real estate community experienced the humanitarian crisis of unsheltered homelessness firsthand. Tenants, employers, and small businesses feel the daily negative impact on livability and quality of life in Downtown Portland. Participants then heard from an expert panel of Alan Evans, Founder and CEO of Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, Bob Day, a former Deputy Chief of Police in Portland, and Rich Vial, a key leader of the faith-based group United in Spirit. Facilitated by Committee chair Tom Ped, the panel supplied an unvarnished perspective on street-level homelessness – from root causes to gaps in our current service and shelter system.
In session two, the group heard from several experts on ways to personally get involved in solutions. On shelter and service programs we heard from Courtney Hamilton from Kenton Women’s Village; RPC steering committee member Bob Grover described his personal mission to lead Washington County community leaders to establish a reentry center like Bybee Lakes; and the leaders of We Heart Seattle joined us to present their unique method of organizing volunteer community trash clean-ups in areas affected by street camping. The We Heart team empowers local folks to become directly involved in cleanup efforts. Utilizing a trauma-informed approach, they connect directly with those camping on the streets and offer them resources and referrals to shelter. A local effort called WeHeart Portland is starting up and members can connect with them to organize clean-ups.
Several themes emerged from the conversation….
As a city, Portland must take more immediate action to BOTH increase people leaving camping and going into shelter AND quickly clean up sidewalks and streetscapes afterwards. Mental health outreach, like the CAHOOTS program model should be part of this. More active, coordinated, and repetitive engagement in areas with encampments will lead to improvements.
Panelists all agreed that Oregon and our region need far greater mental health services for this population. But they also agreed that our current system is inefficiently siloed with little coordination occurring between service providers. Red tape, bureaucratic rules, and inflexible funding were all discussed as added challenges.
Finally, the lack of accountability was a central theme. Panelists described that they cannot transparently view and analyze and plan from real-time population and system data. The current system does not allow for supportive services, shelters, addiction recovery, mental health, and law enforcement to coordinate. When our system continues to NOT reduce the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, who should be held responsible?
The livability and economics in all our neighborhoods are impacted by these issues. We heard a great deal about impacts on hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Without these businesses, employment and tax revenue will drop. We must focus on cleaning up downtown, including all our neighborhoods, and change the perception that we cannot do anything about this.
Taxpayers have voted to increase their own taxes to put more resources into the system. Much of this money will go from the government to programs and services run by nonprofits, that we all know and love. As citizens, getting this information should not be that complicated, and it could serve a huge public purpose to share it. We should be able to track outcomes data and evaluate how our taxpayer money is being spent. We should pursue public data and information like the media does.
It should not be confidential, secret information. Shouldn’t we be able to see budget information, what it was funded for, how it is accounted for, and what benchmarks exist?
At the conclusion of the Symposium, the group discussed action steps and those are summarized here:
1. We should not be afraid to have the tough conversations, to ask questions, and to raise issues with each other or our elected officials. RPC will look at doing shorter versions of this event in other quadrants of the city. We ask business associations and neighborhood groups to invite us to hold these events.
2. We can roll up our sleeves.
The group agreed that some quick action steps should be to volunteer and support homelessness efforts like the Kenton Women’s Village and We Heart Portland. It is important for us, as commercial real estate professionals, landlords, and property owners to find ways to volunteer, donate supplies, or give back to our neighborhoods. RPC will share an array of volunteering opportunities with different resources in the area. We will ask our members to volunteer for cleanups, support these groups, and raise visibility on these efforts.
3. We need a problem statement, then a plan, with accountability.
As CRE professionals, we only proceed with solutions when we can analyze the situation, consider the facts and the context, and develop a problem statement. There is little agreement about how to even count and measure the size and scope of the problem. As we have researched this issue, we haven’t been able to identify a mutually accepted problem statement, nor a comprehensive summary of ALL the work already going on.
We should, constructively, go to our public officials and say: Look, we want to understand how you, the county, city, and state allocate money? What criteria are you using to fund and evaluate this work? Is anyone measuring performance and if so, who? What are they measuring?
We are not asking these questions to punish agencies or make anyone look bad. We are asking so we can learn, we can measure our collective progress, and thus, we can help as a knowledgeable advisory council.
Revitalize Portland Coalition is a real estate collective creating a better city to live and work for all.