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After homeless count, officials talk about what's next
While homeless people dwelled almost directly outside the Multnomah County building on Monday, officials inside were discussing future strategies to help them into housing.
Local housing officials convened after preliminary results of the federally mandated "Point-in-Time" count were released, documenting a nearly 10 percent rise in homeless people in the city since 2015, despite millions of dollars and years of ongoing efforts to tackle the issue.
"Homelessness is up. That's not a good thing. We also know that the drivers in our community continue to work against us — that's those income levels and those rent levels," said Marc Jolin, executive director of the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services and A Home for Everyone, an executive committee of local governments, including Gresham, and Home Forward created to address the issue.
"The big issue is the number of people. Every time we've gotten more money, the number of people we've been able to help has gone up to new heights," said Denis Theriault, spokesman for the agencies. Outreach workers and volunteers counted 4,177 people who met the definition of homeless set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
In Multnomah County in 2016, fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,208, according to HUD. For 2017, that rose to $1,242. That means someone would have to work well over 70 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental. To afford a monthly rent of $1,242 here without spending more than 30 percent of income, one would need to make $23.88 an hour.
"We've definitely seen an increase in folks on disability income or Social Security income who were homeless again, after five-plus years of stability, because they can no longer afford their rent on a fixed income," said Shannon Singleton, executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit that helps get homeless people into housing. She was on the streets helping to count people for the Point-in-Time count.
The count data reflects a rise in homeless people saying they are disabled in some way — 60 percent of those responding — as well as ongoing racial disparities.
"In terms of sub-population dynamics, the fact that we're seeing the rates in disability in homelessness in general increase … that's something we definitely need to come to grips with," Jolin told the committee.
All are looking toward different housing strategies to help, and more neighborhood support of projects, such as the newly established tiny-home village in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood.
Singleton hopes more churches in the area step up to help shelter families until they can get access to a home.
Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who also serves on the executive committee, said it might be helpful to start a statewide conversation on homelessness — or host a "West Coast assembly."
Cities all along the West Coast are grappling with homelessness: Seattle, Los Angeles and Alameda, California, all observed significant spikes in their homeless counts.
Eudaly's idea wasn't the first time an assembly of sorts has been suggested. In December 2015, shortly after the housing and homelessness state of emergency was declared, mayors met for a two-day "West Coast Mayors Summit" where they admitted that they didn't understand enough about homelessness to address — and fund — the issue appropriately.
At the time, they agreed to create a West Coast Mayors Alliance to fund research into the root causes of homelessness — be it rent increases, mental health or drug addiction — and the most appropriate programs to help them lead productive lives. But the cities haven't yet followed through on that pledge. However, according to Michael Cox, mayor's office spokesman, the groups "meet at the staff level once a month, and are planning our next in-person meeting with the mayors."
Nonetheless, there have been some successes this year, such as reducing the number of those sleeping on the streets and increasing space in homeless shelters.
But officials know there's still a long road ahead, and they say they need private-sector help.
"I think we've made some policy commitments and we're seeing some progress on those fronts — and we have a lot of hard work to do still, as a community," Jolin said.
For a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue, visit portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/363521-243994-number-of-homeless-on-the-rise-count-shows.