Homelessness: Improvements made, much more to do
Back in January, Metro President Lynn Peterson made a bold prediction: Within six months, she said, the Portland area would see visible improvement on the issue of homelessness.
At the time, we published an editorial — perhaps tinged with skepticism — suggesting Portlanders mark their calendars for July. The intent was to hold Peterson and her Metro colleagues accountable for the promised improvements.
It's now been more than eight months. We are a bit late with our evaluation, but Portland Tribune reporters and editors have driven around the metro area over the past two months and made informal comparisons with conditions that existed at the start of the year.
Our conclusion is that, yes, the region has made progress specifically on the issue of urban camping. There is a very long way to go, but some of the most entrenched camps are either smaller or gone altogether. Commuters familiar with the Mad Max-style village on Foster Road east of Interstate 205 have watched it disappear, reappear and then be dismantled again. Excellent. Residents in that neighborhood and users of the Springwater Trail are no doubt pleased with the change.
Similarly, camps along Interstate 205 are diminished or eliminated. The Hollywood District, last we checked, feels comfortable for walking again. And Old Town's environment has improved — but again, much more needs to be done there.
The quality-of-life issues caused by urban camping are slowly abating — although Portland arguably lags its West Coast peers that were quicker to crack down on unrestricted camping. What's harder to determine is whether the (literally) billions of public dollars being spent on homelessness are actually reducing the population of people who are unhoused. Taxpayers certainly have been generous in that regard — approving a $250 million per year, 10-year Metro homeless services measure, a $653 million Metro bond levy to build affordable housing, and a $258 million Portland bond measure to create permanent affordable housing.
Metro and the three counties within Metro's boundaries can quote voluminous statistics about housing units built, the number of people sheltered and the number of people who've received assistance to keep them from becoming homeless. What's unknown is whether those being served are replaced on the streets with newly homeless residents, or whether people moving out of high-visibility encampments are just setting up their tents in more discreet locations. Some evidence would point to the latter: During a single one-week period in September, Portland street services teams confirmed 352 active homeless campsites.
Statistics are meaningless to everyday Portland residents if they don't have a benchmark by which to measure improvement. Lacking that context, they can go only by what they see on the streets.
And on that score, a welcome change in attitude by the city of Portland may have as much effect as anything else the region does. The city now is contracting with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which is managed by Multnomah County and the city, to keep 98 shelter beds open for houseless people who are displaced during camp sweeps.
In practical terms, this means the city's Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program can tell unhoused people they cannot camp in a particular spot because the city has a place for them to go. This smartly meets the requirement of courts that have ruled local governments cannot ban camping unless they can provide a sheltered alternative.
In the early stages of this program, the city is finding most homeless folks — certainly not all — decline the offer of help, which means they likely are moving their tents to a new location. Nonetheless, a tougher but still compassionate approach will bring more people into treatment for mental-health issues, which include an explosion of drug use.
Meanwhile, those billions of public dollars being spent on services, prevention, shelters and permanent housing will give the region greater capacity than ever before to address homelessness. Programs aren't ramping up as quickly as anticipated, in part because it's hard to find workers.
However, even if Metro and the three counties had all the services, housing and shelter beds in place, they still would need to adopt the city's current attitude: Help is readily available, and living in a tent is no longer an option in Portland.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.