Editor's note: This piece was co-authored by Ashley Henry and Dr. David Bangsberg.
Having a roof over one's head is a basic need most of us will never have to think about. But for too many of our neighbors here in Portland, losing their home is only one layoff, car accident, or medical emergency away.
The homelessness crisis has occupied our city's social consciousness for years now, showing up with alarming regularity in our news, political debates, elections and everywhere in between—and it's a crisis that's not going away any time soon.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's latest data, homelessness has continued to rise nationally over the last two years. Here in Oregon, we are second only to California in the percentage of our homeless who live unsheltered—in vehicles, parks or on the streets. This adds up to thousands of people living unprotected on the streets of Portland.
When we advocate for policies that improve the lives of all Portlanders—not only the ones we know and love—everyone benefits. But to make a measurable difference, we all have to work together. And, we have to see our homelessness crisis as more than that—we must see it as a human crisis.
Last week at the Oregon Health Forum, we were presented with research that made this reality crystal clear. Dr. Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, shared critical findings from her ongoing study examining the causes and effects of homelessness on adults aged 50 and over in Oakland, California. Her research debunks a widely held myth that people move to cities like Portland—for their milder weather—only after they've become homeless. In fact, she found the opposite to be true—81 percent of people she studied became homeless in the city where they lived, with only 10 percent coming from elsewhere.
A lack of affordable housing, Kushel revealed, is the number one contributor to this tragedy and until it is addressed, the problem will only continue to grow.
We've watched Portland's housing prices and rents increase steadily over the past decade, making today's average rents unaffordable for someone working a full-time job that pays minimum wage. This means hundreds of Portlanders are at risk of losing a roof over their heads without the luxury of savings or a safety net.
Losing a home has devastating ripple effects—including increased rates of mental illness. Contrary to common theories, we now know that losing housing more often causes or exacerbates mental illness than mental illness leads to housing loss.
This isn't the Portland way. We are a city of creative, entrepreneurial minds and we have the ability to affect change, to bring solutions to a challenge that harms too many all around us. But first, we need to believe this challenge is ours to own.
While we need to take responsibility for addressing homelessness, we aren't alone. "Homelessness is all of our responsibility," Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce said after he became aware of Dr. Kushel's research. Convinced that he has a role to play in addressing San Francisco's homelessness crisis, he urged his fellow business executives to support Proposition C—a .05% gross receipts tax on annual corporate revenue over $50 million that will help to fund housing, shelters, mental health treatment and other services for those experiencing homelessness. It successfully passed and has the potential to double the resources available for addressing homelessness in San Francisco.
When we commit to working together, Portland's businesses, nonprofits, and elected leaders can advance our own creative solutions for addressing homelessness. One such solution is Portland Street Response, a proposal developed by StreetRoots, Portland's nonprofit newspaper sold by people experiencing homelessness and/or extreme poverty. In his proposed city budget, Mayor Ted Wheeler recommended $500,000 to jumpstart Portland Street Response, although permanent funding will be needed for full implementation and sustained operations.
Before we can succeed, we must first acknowledge our responsibility to act. When we advocate for our most vulnerable neighbors, we will not only have safer neighborhoods, we'll have a stronger, more equitable, and more prosperous city.
Ashley Henry is executive Director at Business for a Better Portland. Dr. David Bangsberg, Dean of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health.
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