Homeless advocates working to make sure affordable housing bond helps fund units with social services

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - The newly-opened St. Francis Apartments has several units of Permanent Supportive HousingThe City Council is not scheduled to approve a framework for spending the $258.4 million affordable housing bond approved by Portland voters last year until October.

However, homeless advocates, including city and Multnomah County officials, are already working to ensure that at least 300 units be reserved for the chronically homeless who need intensive social services to stay off the streets.

Commissioner Nick Fish is among those behind the push. He says the most recent homeless count in the county shows a sharp increase in the percentage of those with self-declared mental health and substance abuse problems.

"Over 70 percent identified themselves as those we consider chronically homeless, who are the hardest to get into housing. That's up from around 50 percent in 2015, the last time the survey was taken," says Fish.

According to the February 2017 survey, the total also increased from 3,081 to 4,177, although some experts says such counts traditionally undercount the actual number of homeless.

The actual need is far greater than 300 units, however. A recent report found that 2,888 such units already exist in Portland and Multnomah County. But, the report says, another 1,800 units are needed, just based on the 2015 homeless count. Fish expects the number to total 2,000 when the report is updated to reflect the 2017 count.

"We will not be able to significantly reduce the number of chronically homeless until we fund more permanent housing for them.

The cost of such an increase is large, however. The report estimates it at up to $330 million over the next seven to 10 years, including construction, operation and service costs.

Need for both housing, money

The official term for such units is Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). Physically, they are no different than traditional government-supported affordable housing units. But they are dedicated to those earning 30 percent or less of the median family income and needing one-on-one social services to remain in them.

"We are already on our way to building the housing," says Fish, noting that, in addition to the affordable housing bond, city and country officials have approved tens of millions of dollars for new affordable housing projects in recent years. "The challenge is finding an ongoing source of revenue for the services."

According to the report, service costs average $10,597 a year per tenant. They include social services, clinical services and residential services. Some may be onsite, while others can be coordinated off site.

Fish says he is working on a resolution for council approval that will commit the city to the goal of building and supporting 2,000 PSH units over the next 10 years. It will be discussed during a Sept. 5 council work session of the Joint Office of Homeless Service, a city-county initiative to reduce homelessness. Fish says he will ask the council to adopt the resolution on Sept. 21, about three weeks before it is scheduled to approve the affordable housing bond spending framework.

Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury is working on a similar resolution, Fish says. She wrote to the Stakeholder Advisory Group drafting a framework for spending the bond money on July 7, urging it to prioritize such units.

"Dedicating 300 housing bond units as Permanent Supportive Housing would go a long way to closing the gap, and would give hope to hundreds of people who are sleeping on our streets," Kafoury said.

Also involved in the discussions are Metro Councilor Sam Chase and Oregon Housing and Community Services Director Margaret Salazar, along with a number of homeless and affordable housing advocates in the region.

"Everyone has to be part of the solution," Fish says.

Some say emergency shelters aren't the answer

The report was prepared by the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a national nonprofit organization founded in 1991 that argues such units are the most effective means for reducing chronic homelessness. "Supportive housing can solve complex and costly social problems while improving the lives of the most vulnerable members of our communities," the organization's strategic plan reads.

The report was prepared by Heather Lyons, the CSH director for the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. Her organization has prepared similar reports for other cities designated as priorities for reducing homelessness of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Using financial modeling, it compared different combinations of publicly-supported and leased housing projects to meet the goal. All total more than $300 million over seven to 10 years.

The report was presented March 3 to the Executive Committee of A Home for Everyone, a joint city/county initiative to create more affordable housing. Fish was in attendance and struck by the findings. Although he supports the current efforts to increase emergency shelters, Fish says they do not provide a reliable path off the streets, especially for the chronically homeless.

The issue will be discussed again at a PSH Summit organized in Portland on Sept. 14 by CSH and Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing advocacy organization. It will feature representatives from Los Angeles and Seattle/King County who will talk about their efforts to increase resources for supportive housing. About 90 people across many sectors are being invited, including funders, providers, people with lived experience, advocates, and others.

The Affordable Housing Bond Stakeholders Advisory Group was created in February to draft a framework for spending the $258.4 million approved by voters at the November 2016 general election. The money is intended to create and preserve 1,300 units of affordable housing.

Fish wrote the group on Aug. 8 to urge that it recommend that 300 PSH units be created among the projects funded by the bond.

"You have been tasked with the responsibility of recommending the highest and best use of precious public resources. I hope you will use this opportunity to close a glaring gap in our system — and address a persistent crisis on our streets," Fish said.

The group was scheduled to refer its recommendations to the council on Aug. 14. The final version was not available by press time.