Shelter space at a premium as demand rises dramatically

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Vinson Lakey and Tasson Billings share a laugh over lunch at the Portland Rescue Mission in downtown Portland. The two are part of the organizations Link Program, aimed at getting men off the street and onto a career path.Ebenezer Scrooge might look at the person sleeping on the sidewalk or under an overpass and wonder why they don’t just go to a shelter.

The answer in the Portland area is simple. They’re jammed full.

A person who becomes homeless tonight will have to wait an average of 120 days to get a bed. That’s according to a recent survey of area waiting lists by Transition Projects Inc., the largest provider of shelter space for homeless single adults in the Portland region.

What this means, says TPI Development Director Tony Bernal, is that the idea of an emergency shelter — where a newly homeless person can go to get food, a safe place to sleep and comfort —is largely a thing of the past.

“There are at least four times the number of people living on the streets as we have shelter bed capacity,” Bernal says. “For most people seeking shelter, they can’t get it. At least not immediately.”

Twenty-five years ago, an assessment of shelter space ordered by then-Mayor Bud Clark found there was adequate capacity. No one was forced to sleep on the streets.

These days, once people even begin using homeless services, they have already been sleeping outside for a very long time.

Homeless services throughout the region have morphed into residential programs with most people staying two to three months to address a range of issues before getting back on their feet.

And the picture is getting worse quickly. Several agencies are reporting that in 2013, the number of people in the area requesting shelter space has increased dramatically.

Matt Kinshella, a spokesperson for 211info, said the referral service has seen nearly twice the number of people requesting shelter space this year from 300 in November 2012 to 591 in November 2013.

“The family shelter system has seen the highest volume it has seen in a long time,” Kinshella says.

Human Solutions, which opens a Family Winter Emergency Shelter during the cold months, also has seen a sharp increase.

“For the last four years, we have served 40 to 80 homeless people in families each night,” says Human Solutions Executive Director Jean DeMaster. “This year, we are averaging 80 to 105 homeless people (children and parents) each night.”

Alexa Mason, a spokesperson for the Portland Rescue Mission, says the nonprofit group also is having to turn away more people than ever. Single women searching for a safe place to sleep are on the rise, she says. “If you’re downtown and a single woman looking for a place to stay, it’s going to be very difficult for you to find something.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The line runs long outside the Portland Rescue Mission before dinner is served in the evening.Though Oregon’s unemployment rate is improving, service agencies point to sluggish job growth in lower income brackets as a major factor leading to homelessness.

But there’s another force at work, too, notes TPI’s Bernal. Portland’s rental market overall is at a record low of 2 percent vacancy, and affordable housing units are even more rare.

“Even when the family has a voucher to pay for their housing for the next six months, they cannot find a landlord to rent to them,” DeMaster says.

This is becoming a theme all too common in Oregon. This year’s federal homelessness assessment placed Oregon among five other states with warmer climates to have more than half of its homeless population unsheltered.

The federal government is where most dollars to fight homelessness come from, but with sequestration being the new normal, localities are scrambling to find extra room in their budgets for housing.

On Nov. 13, the Portland City Council authorized a one-time $1.7 million expenditure for homelessness, aiming to aid 200 homeless adults and 100 families in 2014.

“Everyone is working very hard,” says the Rescue Mission’s Mason, “but the demand is continuing to rise. So we have a high demand and a low supply.”

Transition Projects convened a roundtable discussion on Nov 12 to address the myriad reasons services are not keeping up with need. A task force aims to bring policy suggestions to City Council next spring.

But for people on the streets today, the help may not come fast enough. The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts this winter to be colder and snowier than normal.

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