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County chair says solution should include 'four walls' but that local policies alone cannot solve the housing crisis

PMG FILE PHOTO - Multnomah Chair Deborah KafouryEfforts by local government officials to address homelessness in greater Portland are working, according to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, but the scope of the problem is more than they can solve

"Our strategies are working," she said at a May 31 event before an audience of more than 120 people at the Multnomah Athletic Club.

"When I say that these strategies are working, I mean they're preventing and ending people's homelessness. To be clear, our strategies do not and cannot end the housing crisis."

Kafoury's comments came at a recent forum on homelessness sponsored by the nonprofit Oregon Health Forum, called "Homelessness — Where Do We Go From Here?"

Her speech, along with remarks from several others, including a prominent homelessness researcher and advocate, Dr. Margot Kushel, provided a public window into the latest moves and rationale of how advocates are seeking to combat the problem in Portland, Oregon and nationally.

The answer, Kafoury said, is simple: more housing.

"Solving homelessness is not like trying to figure out how to get to Mars or to solve cancer. We don't actually need to look for new solutions because we know what they are," she said. "If, when you think of homelessness, you automatically go to mental health, PTSD or addiction, then yes, those are complex health issues that require careful treatment. But every single one of those solutions should always include four walls, a roof, a front door. Because the simple truth is that homelessness is solved with a home."

Kafoury said the passage of two housing bonds by city of Portland and Metro voters shows that the public supports the need for more housing. And she said a joint office setup with the City of Portland is bearing fruit.

"We now serve over 6,000 new households each year. We've nearly doubled the number of people who've moved out of homelessness and back into permanent housing each year to almost 6,000, and we've doubled the number of shelter beds. And the number of people reaching shelter each year rose to over 8,000.

"So last year here in Multnomah County, we served a total of 35,000 people through the joint office of homeless services," Kafoury said.

She said the city-county office has 600 units of "supportive housing" that features case managers and other services, completed or in the works, with 1,400 more on the way.

Kafoury said the region needs a new source of revenue to pay down rents of those who are in danger of losing their housing, and she promoted the work of a new homelessness coalition, Here Together, that is working toward that.

"The next challenge before us is to secure funding to pay down the rents for the lowest-income households and for essential services to keep people housed," she said. "It's a source of revenue that we don't currently have because the bond money can only pay for the buildings."

Kushel, who researches homelessness in California, said the federal government has slashed its affordable housing spending since 1980, fueling the issue. She said the problem is all the more pressing because the homeless population is aging — meaning a whole slew of new costs and problems among the homeless, such as dementia, have reached "humanitarian" proportions. She said people are increasingly losing housing after they turn 50, and have the health problems to match.

"It actually has huge public policy implications because we're seeing lots of what we call cognitive and functional disabilities, which place people at risk of nursing home placement," Kushel said. "And if we don't address this problem soon, if you think we have problems with the Medicaid system now, just wait."

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