Portland has been experiencing a humanitarian crisis of unsheltered homelessness for years, with local government leaders espousing plans with the best of intentions, but with the reality of a worsening and dire situation on our streets.
Rather than considering that there is a baseline below which people should not live, then developing a plan to identify who people are and what they need so we can intervene effectively, we have seen a doubling down on the approach that has gotten us to this situation in the first place.
Public revelations shine a light on the degree of discoordination and lack of reliable data that exists in our system: The Multnomah County Auditor recently released a report that showed significant errors in how data was collected and reflected at the Joint Office of Homeless Services. Willamette Week broke a story that showed that Multnomah County had used 15 of 476 housing vouchers, while Washington County had used 23% and Clackamas County had used 100%. And a recent Oregonian article, "False Promises: 75% of unsheltered Portlanders contacted by a housing worker never heard back," described the profound degree to which outreach services are not effectively reaching the vast majority of people living outside.
Some local government leaders point to the need for increased outreach and navigation services as a way to mitigate the crisis of unsheltered homelessness. But we don't just need more people doing the work — we need better systems so that the work can be effective. Pouring millions of dollars on top of a system that is decentralized, siloed and dysfunctional may achieve some additional services for some people living outside, but it will never change the broader trajectory of what is happening on our streets.
To change our systems, I propose that we start with the following:
• Create a by-name list of who is living unsheltered as soon as possible. We hear a lot about the upcoming Point In Time Count, but this count is notoriously inaccurate and doesn't provide crucial information that would allow us to direct services to meet people's actual needs.
• Establish a coordinated network of microvillages, safe parking lots, safe rest villages, and other structures that forms a holistic continuum of shelters where people want to be. Establishing microvillages can be done much more quickly and cheaply than current shelter models, in a way people living outside have actually asked for, and at a scale that can make an impact.
• Map where people are so that outreach teams can reliably know where to find them, establish relationships and provide services that are meaningful and continuous.
• Coordinate navigation and outreach services with a centralized plan, informed by workers on the frontline, so there is a cohesive and consistent inventory of where services are needed and where outreach teams should go. Provide robust technical and emotional support for the people doing the work, and learn from their experience.
• Develop an advisory body that ensures representation, accountability and oversight over the coordinated plan.
With the crisis on our streets continuing to worsen, investing in more outreach services in an ineffective system is not a pathway to success, but rather a way to achieve more of the status quo. We need to urgently centralize and coordinate our homeless and outreach services so that they function effectively to meet the needs of our entire community. Only then can we add additional services and expect them to make a meaningful and lasting difference.
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