A coalition of homeless service providers and advocacy groups gathered Thursday to make an ask of Portland’s elected leaders and property owners: help house 3,000 people by the end of the year.
The call was a rebuke to plans bubbling up recently within Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s administration that prioritize large, temporary shelters — most notably, a proposal floated in January by mayoral aide Sam Adams to create three, 1,000-person shelters and require people move into them. The idea was panned by advocates and providers as both impractical and inhumane.
Instead of requiring those 3,000 people to move into emergency shelters, as the mayor’s office suggested, advocates for people living outdoors say the smarter solution is to offer homes that are already built.
“There’s a lot of frenetic energy coming out of that office,” said Kaia Sand, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group and alternative newspaper Street Roots and one of the architects behind the push for 3,000 units. “So we’re saying, ‘Let’s just be smarter. We’ve got a lot of good ideas. Instead of just spinning around and throwing things out there, let’s just start chipping away.’”
Seeking government money
In a press conference Thursday, Sand joined leaders from a dozen other advocacy organizations in asking property owners to pledge at least one of their empty units to house people currently living on the street.
The coalition also called on Portland and Multnomah County to provide vouchers and rental subsidies for these units and for nonprofits to provide wraparound services. Those are the various services people might need upon moving in, such as mental health care and addiction treatment.
Katrina Holland, the executive director of homeless service provider JOIN, said her agency already does this through its master leasing program. Under that program, the nonprofit becomes a tenant in a unit and can sublet it to someone living on the street. Holland said the program also provides wraparound services for tenants.
She said the program has been successful, with clients remaining in their apartments, interest from property owners, and a surplus of inventory. She said she perused apartments.com Wednesday night and found 6,966 units available — at the same time that waitlists for public housing stretch for years.
The issue she keeps colliding with, she said, is a reluctance from local governments to pay the rent and other associated costs to get people into these units. Holland said the county has begun participating and is looking to scale up the program. But she said the city has remained “unresponsive.”
“The ideas being floated by the mayor all cost money — millions of dollars actually,” said Holland. “What we’re saying instead is: Let’s choose housing. It’s a smarter investment. It’s more responsible with taxpayers’ dollars.”
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement she was currently working with the providers on how to accelerate people’s transition into housing and to “stay tuned.”
“I am excited by this idea and the energy behind it; we all want to get more people into existing apartments,” she said. “We know one of our biggest challenges is getting access to the empty units we know are out there.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement he was open to collaborating.
“All options are on the table as my administration continues moving forward with housing initiatives. I’m willing to work with anyone and everyone to find compassionate, safe solutions,” he said.
The coalition did not provide a number as to how much it would cost to get 3,000 people into available housing by the end of the year. Holland said that JOIN spends between $47,000 to $52,000 per household per year in their master leasing program — that includes staff to support the tenant, the cost of rent, and paying for utilities. Urban League of Portland’s Julia Delgado said her organization has a similar master leasing program that serves single adults. It costs them $28,000 per person annually.
The providers say leasing already built housing is a much more cost-efficient and effective approach to the housing crisis than funneling millions of dollars toward temporary shelter, which will not end people’s homelessness.
“What’s happening now is long-duration shelter stays that are phenomenally expensive that then don’t lead to housing,” Delgado said. “We just kind of want to skip that intervention and go straight to housing. So the costs may be coming sooner, but they’re not more.”
In the last few months, both the mayor and Commissioner Dan Ryan have been pushing to build more shelters. Ryan is spearheading a push to create six outdoor villages, each of which will house 60 people. In total, the six villages will cost in the ballpark of $20 million. The mayor has said he wants to build shelters larger than 60 people.
Two people experiencing homelessness who spoke at Thursday’s conference vehemently opposed the massive shelters being pushed by the mayor. George McCarthy, a Street Roots vendor, said he’d been in seven shelters in three states. At each, he said, he had no privacy, felt infantilized by curfews, and found himself “warehoused with a lot of troubled people.”
“It sets a horrible precedent where you can essentially raise rents to the point that people can’t pay them, have them dumped out on the street and very easily moved into another area,” McCarthy said. “If you really want for people to be able to be independent, you’ve got to have the ability to have enough privacy and safety to develop the frame of mind to do so.”
The coalition pushing for 3,000 housing units comprises 13 organizations, including civil rights advocacy organization Urban League of Portland, environmental advocacy group Verde and homeless service providers and advocates Street Roots, Transition Projects, Human Solutions and JOIN.
In addition to pitching for more units, the group wants local government to buy properties that can be immediately converted into affordable housing following the roadmap set model of Project Turnkey, a statewide program to turn motels and hotels into affordable housing. They also want to ensure the screening criteria for units that become available do not exacerbate racial disparities within the region’s homeless population. The most recent completed count of the region’s homeless population in 2019 showed Black people made up 16% of the houseless population in Multnomah County but only 7% of the general population.
That point in time count showed more than 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in the county, though experts warn that number has likely grown during the pandemic.