Oregon is in the midst of a global pandemic. Wildfires ravaged parts of the state this summer. People are losing jobs and every night there are protests on Portland’s streets that often erupt into violence.
Related: OPB’s 2020 election coverage, ballot guide and results
And yet, despite the multiple urgent crises to choose from, the most concerning issue for Portlanders and much of the region remains an intractable problem the area has faced for years: the number of people living without shelter.
A new poll taken for OPB shows when voters were asked to name the most important problem facing the region, the issue mentioned most frequently was homelessness.
Related: OPB's ballot guide for the 2020 election
Christina Marcoules, of Portland, a registered Democrat, is one of the people surveyed from Oct. 7-11 who said homelessness remains the most pressing issue for her.
Unlike the pandemic, she said, which feels invisible in some ways, “homelessness is visual.”
“There is no way you can drive in Multnomah County, Clackamas County, anywhere in the tri-county area and not see it. I think that’s why it’s so apparent. You can’t unsee it,” Marcoules said.
Poll: What do you think is the most important problem facing Portland?
Source: A DHM Research phone and online poll of 1,000 likely voters across the tri-county region. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
John Horvick, of DHM Research, the firm that conducted the poll, also noted, perhaps not surprisingly, that many surveyed voters in the region say their communities are headed in the wrong direction. In Portland, 52% of voters feel the city is on the wrong track, while only 36% feel it’s headed in the right direction.
“For context, those are stinky numbers,” Horvick said, adding the percent of people who feel the region is heading in the right direction is at a historic low.
The numbers aren’t great for incumbents running for reelection — such as Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler or Commissioner Chloe Eudaly — but the lack of trust in elected officials could also have longer-term consequences for the region.
“Distrust in your local elected officials either individually or collectively to move the city in a positive direction erodes people’s faith in their government,” Horvick said.
There are some exceptions, however, most voters in the region are pleased with the way elected officials have handled the pandemic, 56% of the voters in the region and 67% in Portland approve of the way leaders are handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a split along party lines, with disapproval being the highest among Republicans in the metro area at 62%.
In May, at the start of the pandemic, Wheeler was likely experiencing his peak approval ratings, Horvick said.
“It was such an opportunity to win that primary outright … That he didn’t, is really telling of him as a candidate,” Horvick said.
Wheeler almost gained the majority he needed to win reelection in the primary, but now his support levels have dropped dramatically and he finds himself in a tight race with challenger Sarah Iannarone.
The phone and online poll of 1,000 likely voters across the tri-county region has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The polling results of 400 likely voters in the city of Portland has a margin of error of 4.9%.
Voters are largely united in their displeasure with how elected officials have handled the recent protests and that issue holds true for both political parties. There is, however, a generational divide with older individuals expressing more disapproval. There were 67% of voters in the region and 70% in Portland who disapprove of the way the recent protests have been handled.
Voters are also unhappy with how elected officials have addressed race relations, with 56% of voters in the region and 61% in Portland disapproving.
There are some surprises in what wasn’t mentioned by people during polling. Traffic, which used to be an ever-present concern in previous DHM polls, temporarily no longer feels as pressing now that so many people aren’t sitting in traffic daily to commute to an office. Only 2% of people in Portland mentioned climate change as a big concern. And despite the nightly protests and discussions about police oversight, the issue of police budgets were also not raised.
What doesn’t show up in the surveys can serve as a good reminder, Horvick said, as to what feels the most pressing for the average voter.
Chris Leniger, who lives in Washington County, in the Tigard area, and is registered as a Republican, said he put homelessness down as the top issue because he fears what will happen when the moratorium on evictions is lifted.
Leniger is a social worker and he is often trying to help people find housing, without luck.
“There just isn’t anything available,” he said. “And the underlying concern is when the eviction moratorium is lifted, housing will be available but a lot of people will be evicted for back rent.”
James Pullman, of Washington County, who said he is part of the Independent Party, said the number of people living in tents has seemingly exploded lately.
“My heart hurts every time I pass a homeless person,” he said.
Pullman, and others, expressed a feeling of paralysis when it comes to the issue of how to help those living on the streets. But several also expressed another sentiment:
“I wouldn’t want to be a leader in this community,” Pullman said.
You can see DHM’s survey methodology here and the cross-tabs here.