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Unifying Our Voices: Why We Need A Community Consensus on Homelessness*

We have always celebrated individualism in America, but traditionally our communities have helped us thrive. Even the most rugged pioneers came together with their neighbors to put up their homes, and construct schools and churches. It took a village to build a town, and everyone pitched in. People worked together based on shared values and common goals and helped each other in time of need.

Pioneers coming together to help their neighbors

We need to come together, once again, as a community in Oregon to combat homelessness, which affects everyone, regardless of whether we have housing or not.

We can succeed, as other communities have, if we can reach a consensus on strategies and implement them with urgency. The longer we wait, the more the people on the streets will suffer. And, by extension, our local economy will suffer, as will governmental revenues to provide services.

Success will require coordinated, agreed-upon approaches between the public and private sectors. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently noted that the City of Houston has reduced homelessness there by 60% since 2011.

According to Kristof, “[o]ne of Houston’s most important innovations was to establish Coalition for the Homelessness there as an independent, outside agency to coordinate 100 nonprofits, so that they could all address homelessness under the umbrella of an effort called The Way Home.” It is important to note that private interests and businesses are part of this Coalition.

In Oregon, over three hundred private non-profit organizations are working hard on homelessness today. The stated policy of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a purported partnership between the City of Portland and Multnomah County, is to work with these community-based organizations and government agencies to provide services to the homeless population.

But the coordination is not there, the strategies are inconsistent and conflicting, and the services are not getting to those who need them. And the private sector is not formally engaged at all.

As Andy Mendenhall of Central City Concern, a major Portland nonprofit, stated recently to Willamette Week's Nigel Jaquiss:

One of the greatest challenges in this state is that we’ve historically lacked a strategy for our behavioral health care system. That shows up as Oregon historically being in the bottom five. And sometimes we’re at the bottom in terms of our access on a per-capita basis to behavioral health services—in particular, substance use disorder services.

There is deep disagreement in Oregon on policy, with the “Housing First” philosophy as a root point of division.

Mr. Kristof contends the “Housing First” approach to homelessness, which makes building housing a top priority, has served Houston well. But Kristof recognizes that housing is easier to build in Houston than elsewhere due to “lack of regulation [which] makes it easy, quick and cheap to build new apartments.”

Mr. Mendenhall asserts the Housing First strategy has done a disservice to Oregon: “It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror and identify that there was a philosophy within the Portland metropolitan area that was ‘housing first’ strategy, as in only build housing units. And that was not an appropriate strategy for the region.”

Of course, Portland is not Houston....but Oregon needs to proactively eliminate the divisions on policies and implementation. The answers are right before us. It is not just about housing. One response from Mr. Mendenhall is more residential treatment capacity. He says:

Many of these individuals would be doing better if they got a residential treatment episode of care for 30 to 60 days. We need a tranche of inpatient psychiatric beds locally: somewhere between 40 to 50 inpatient psych beds. And we need upwards of 200 secure residential treatment beds.

So many other steps can be taken if we just adopt them and act. The current civil commitment process, which too often serves to deprive help to those in need, leaves many of those with chronic mental illness with no option but continued homelessness.

We are too divided on strategy particularly at the government levels. Multnomah County deserves some credit for eventually agreeing to provide operational funding for Bybee Lakes Hope Center. Bybee Lakes is a vital private nonprofit shelter and rehabilitative facility that has been achieving positive results.

But the County’s mystifying opposition to a sobering center, as proposed by the City of Portland’s new Chief of Police, Bob Day, who has a long history of dealing effectively with homelessness at the community level, is deeply concerning if not alarming. Hopefully, leaders like Multnomah County Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards can deftly guide her colleagues toward this solution.

Governor Kotek's 47-person Portland Central City Task Force weighed in with their recommendations on December 11th. It is clear that the Task Force heard the voices of small business owners, neighbors, & the CRE community. But their recommendations are only the start...coordinated action must follow. On homelessness, their priorities are:

  • Focus peer delivered services and street outreach workers in the Central City.

  • Increase safe and accessible options for unsheltered people.

  • Expand Central City’s homeless shelter capacity. 

You'll notice that these are largely incremental changes involving more public spending. To be clear we support increased shelter capacity and have supported Mayor Wheeler's TASS sites. But, they don't address how effectively hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding are being spent (or NOT spent). RPC asked for that in October from Multnomah County...and we're still waiting for a response. And the Task Force had little to say about access to mental health treatment.

The Task Force also recommend a ban on the public us of controlled-substances, declaring a "tri-government fentanyl emergency", & more law enforcement response in the Central City, all of which are tactical steps that should help. But, again, we need big, bold COURSE CORRECTION away from failed policies rather than new slogans & token, incremental shifts.

It is time for us to reach consensus and come together as a community. Our state and local governments must unite on strategies and properly coordinate and implement them through public agencies and private partners. We need a plan with specific policies and objectives, and explanations of how we are going to get there. Our leaders need to lead. It is essential now more than ever to bring an end to the unconscionable suffering of those who endure most of our leaders’ thus far disjointed approaches.

Doing so would honor the tradition of our pioneer forebearers. And it would help solve homelessness in Oregon for the benefit of everyone.

By Thomas A. Ped

WILLIAMS KASTNER & Secretary, Revitalize Portland Coalition

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