Opinion: We can end unsheltered homelessness in Portland
Editor's Note: A shortened version of this column was published in the Tribune's Oct. 20 issue.
End unsheltered homelessness.
Mary Simons made this her goal and she and her team have nearly achieved it.
A few weeks ago, Mary allowed me the privilege of spending a day with her in Gulfport, Mississippi, helping me understand that Portland's challenge is not insurmountable.
Mary is executive director of Open Doors Homeless Coalition, which, like Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services, manages the homeless services in multiple communities, in this case Mississippi's Gulf Coast Region, a six-county area along the coast which includes the cities of Biloxi, Pascagoula and Gulfport.
Open Doors' journey to arrive on the cusp of "zero homelessness" was so much steeper than what we face in Portland, even with our thousands of unsheltered souls living on our streets.
In 2005, the Gulf Coast awoke after the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina receded, with 50,000 homes destroyed. Everyone in their community was affected. The unhoused were both rich and poor.
By the time FEMA left, three years later, they had 600 unsheltered individuals living on the streets and in the woods. Today, they have exactly 54 and are working with each one, explaining to them, "We want to support you. What does that look like? But you can't stay here."
It hasn't been easy. The Gulf Coast, like so many U.S. communities, initially relied on a "housing first" model, which focuses on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing. With 100% of their emergency shelters destroyed and not rebuilt after the storm and with limited transitional housing, they really had no other choice. However, they simply did not have the personnel to provide outreach to everyone, every day, to match the needs with available resources.
As a result, from 2008 to 2014, they were stuck at about 600 unsheltered homeless people in the area.
Built for Zero communities know exactly how many people are experiencing homelessness at any time. They know a lot more than that, too. They know who each person is and what that individual needs to get back into housing. They know the length of time each person has been homeless and what specific challenges are keeping them out of housing, like not having a driver's license or birth certificate, for example.
They know all this with the help of something called a "by-name-list."
The by-name list isn't just about collecting stats on each person experiencing homelessness. Taken together, the by-name list and the data it provides give a view of homelessness across the entire community — and allows teams to work toward ending it.
"It's hard work though," Mary says. After implementing Built for Zero and seeing immediate and steady reductions, the number of unsheltered homeless on the Gulf Coast plateaued at 300 souls living outdoors in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The by-name list had become a key resource but was incomplete. Mary didn't have the staff to reach everyone, every day.
"You can't do it alone," she realized.
The solution came in 2018 when Mary walked into a meeting with the mayor and police chief in Biloxi. The police were frustrated because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in city funding that was related to police calls to issues related to unsheltered homeless that, oftentimes, ended in arrests. (Sounds familiar? Half of those arrested in Portland are homeless persons).
Mary realized that the police were either going to be a roadblock or a remedy. So, she asked, "How about if I save you some money?"
They agreed and became partners. The chief assigned two officers to the Open Doors Program and those officers provided access to the entire department. Soon after, the other cities along the Gulf Coast did the same. They collectively began helping her complete the by-name list.
Interviewing many of the officers that were now calling her and her team directly, she found they "hated arresting the homeless." She wanted to give them better options.
There is no magic 1, 2, 3-step process. Each interaction has a tailored response. One police officer in Biloxi told her he had been at a bus station when two individuals got off an arriving bus and seemed lost. He asked if he could help them. One of them said, "I am looking for the shelter." The officer explained that the shelters were wiped out in the floods. The individuals told him they had been homeless in another state where authorities had asked them where they would like to go. They said, "Biloxi," and were given one-way bus tickets.
The officer took the opportunity to become part of the solution. He immediately offered help and contacted Open Doors, which provided a hotel room for three days, contacted the individuals' family members, and helped them get back home.
The most striking point to me was that not only did the officer help these souls, but he also tracked down the person in the other state who purchased the bus tickets, calling to explain how unprofessional and inhumane their approach was to ship homeless to other towns. An extraordinary story about working together to connect people to their support groups where they can be housed.
"Partnerships are hard to create," Mary points out, "but once gained, you can move fast." With the police on board and helping, the number of unsheltered began to drop.
More partnerships followed. Next were hospitals that still "discharged patient to shelter," (including one person with a newly amputated leg) even though there were no shelters. Hospitals now notify Open Doors days in advance if someone scheduled for discharge does not have housing.
Similarly, there were 98 veterans using her homeless day center. Mary's research found that most had completed their treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the local VA hospital and were being "discharged to homelessness" from the program. The VA now shares as much non-confidential information as they can with Open Doors, informing her in advance of a patients release so her team can jump into action to find housing.
Partnerships now extend to every part of the community: businesses, real estate agents, faith-based organizations, etc. Everyone wants to help with the by-name list, sharing with Open Doors, and building trust with the unsheltered homeless population. That is the true genius of Open Doors and Built for Zero. Mary now knows everyone experiencing homelessness "by name," in real time.
That's how you get from tens of thousands of homeless to 54.
Contrast this story with Portland, a city of wealth and beauty with many resources in our community standing ready to help. At any moment we have 175 firefighters on duty at any moment, EMTs, our new Portland Street Response, countless homeless services agencies and faith-based organizations providing shelter and meals, 95 plugged-in-neighborhood associations, thousands of Neighborhood Emergency Team members, and dozens upon dozens of community organizations helping in all corners of our city.
Our police, who are on the front lines caring for our city, drive or walk by our unsheltered souls every day and bear the brunt of an uncoordinated system. All these resources are disconnected while the quality of life for both the homed and homeless suffers. In the case of the homeless, on average, every three days, a life is lost.
Many of us will say, "We have an affordable housing issue in Portland, we lack alternative shelter." And that is exactly what I said to Mary. We have been conditioned in Portland to believe this. Mary immediately challenged me to, "stop looking at the usual locations."
"Focus on solutions," she said. "Develop a network of second-chance landlords that will accept tenants with damaged rental histories. If you need housing for sexual offenders, talk to them. Where do others live?"
The point she was making was that if you argue for your limitations, you become part of the problem.
"The goal is to end unsheltered homelessness," she said. "We can only focus on solutions." And the solutions are as varied as the individual needs and situations.
When you focus on ending homelessness, never allowing the street to be a destination, and engaging your whole community, you can move mountains and care for your neighbors — all of them.
That's why I'm glad that Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services has joined the Built for Zero movement and will be implementing their techniques in the months ahead so that they can measurably and equitably end homelessness.
Like Mary, I believe we can end unsheltered homelessness in Portland. I often say, the "P" in Portland stands for pride in our city. Perhaps we will end unsheltered homelessness when the "P" stands for partnerships.
Keith Wilson is president and CEO of TITAN Freight Systems in Portland, and a board member of Shelter Now in Portland. Learn more at shelternow.org.
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