Editor’s Note: OPB is reaching out to the three leading candidates to become Oregon’s next governor to see where they fall on the issues. Here are Betsy Johnson’s responses to our written questions about how to address the state’s homelessness crisis:
What do you believe are the specific causes of Oregon’s homelessness crisis?
There are as many causes for homelessness as there are people on the street. There is no one size fits all solution because there is no one cause of the problem. The deepest roots of homelessness are in the complete failure of our mental health system, the lack of affordable housing, and our unwillingness to deal with the scourge of hard drug addiction in Oregon. I believe Democrats are right that we need more services, shelters and long-term housing options but Republicans are right that we must hold people accountable and not encourage or support lawlessness.
But that is not the question you asked. You asked what is the cause of the homelessness crisis, and that is a different answer because the causes of homelessness are not why it’s become a crisis. It’s become a crisis because we have elected too many feckless politicians who would rather talk about homelessness than do something about it and who go home at night unconcerned by the number of those who are sleeping on the streets with destroyed lives as the problem continues to erode our communities and their safety. That problem ends with me because my frustration with the say-everything, do-nothing class of politicians who run this state has driven me to run for governor. Hopefully, enough Oregonians will vote for me so we can get things done.
What is a metric you will use to gauge your administration’s success on homelessness? What is a reasonable timetable for meeting that metric?
We must end tent cities and reduce the number of people living unsheltered on the streets – the point in time count is one metric. We need to stand up designated camping areas and build more safe shelters. I think a reasonable goal is a 50% reduction in unsheltered homelessness in two years. There will never be accountability if we don’t set specific goals and align policies and money to achieve them. In terms of housing, we need to build around 30,000 new housing units a year for the next twenty years to address Oregon’s politician-created housing supply shortage which has created our housing affordability crisis.
What type of homeless shelters are the most effective? Low barrier? Or those that require something from residents? Where should they be located?
We need to stop judging shelters based on how effective they are in leading to permanent solutions. Housing first advocates are correct that there are so many problems that will not get solved until someone has a stable roof over their head. But they are wrong that we must start by putting a permanent roof over someone’s head, regardless of their existing problems. Their approach has us wasting years building $400,000 a door apartment complexes for 100 people as thousands of people wait on the street for permanent solutions. We need to reverse that dynamic. Shelters are temporary solutions, but they are incredibly effective in keeping people from dying on the streets. We need to start by getting everyone off the streets and into safe shelter as we continue to pursue the long-term strategies that can get more affordable housing into our market. Therefore, there need to be a range of shelter options from high to low barrier, with immediate mental health and drug treatment availability and particular support for women with children. Now. This is not as hard as some would say, if we truly decide that saving lives and preserving our community are our most important values. The streets should not be our waiting room for reform.
Was Project Turnkey a good idea? Should it be expanded?
Project Turnkey was a very short-term idea that is being turned into an ongoing mistake. Buying out motel and hotel rooms all over the state and filling them with homeless people only creates more problems. Many of the nonprofits who are being left in charge will likely be unable to sustain services once the federal and state funds stop. It is an unsustainable model. I get why this seems like an easy way for politicians to spend money on the problem, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems and fails to anticipate the new ones it creates. When the state starts throwing money around, it can have unforeseen effects on local businesses and their communities.
How would you suggest helping people move beyond homeless shelters and into more permanent housing?
Simply handing someone who has been living on the streets a key to an apartment isn’t realistic. People need plans to address their specific challenges – mental health, drugs, addiction, poverty, job-skills, health care, etc. to help them prepare and transition to independent living. We need to combine compassion with personal responsibility. The Bybee Lakes Hope Center in Portland, which I helped create, provides an instructive and real-life response to this question. The purpose of Bybee Lakes is to provide shelter and, equally as important, help people to transition to independent living and permanent housing. Bybee Lakes is a great example because it has transformed a monstrous waste of government spending and turned it into a productive service for the community. It focuses on meeting people where they are and giving out equal parts hope and responsibility to help homeless people get their feet back under them.
Should people camping illegally face citations or criminal charges?
First, we must understand that camping on the streets is illegal. The law is the law. But we now have more shelters for people to go to than we have people using them. We need to use the law as a tool to drive people to shelters. The idea is not to punish people living on the streets, it’s to use the opportunity to get them the help they need. If we’re not willing to enforce the law, we’re not going to clean up our streets and help everyone we seek to help, including both the homeless and the broader community. We need to approach homelessness not just as an individual problem, but as a threat to our community as a whole.
How would you address homelessness that is affecting areas outside of the Portland metro region?
The same way I would address the homeless problem in the metro region, just with more awareness that in smaller communities there are less available options. Also, outside of the metro area, the repercussions of not dealing well with homelessness are felt more immediately. No matter where you live, I have three objectives to address the crisis. First, set a plan to end dangerous and unregulated camping in public places by creating more safe, designated camping areas and more emergency shelters with access to life-saving services. Oregon cannot continue to use public places as a waiting room for services and/or housing. This failed approach is dangerous and inhumane. Second, honestly address the role mental illness, drugs, addiction, and lawlessness play in the homeless crisis. This will include working to repeal the failed experiment to legalize hard drugs; supporting law enforcement; and mounting a full court press to provide services to those who need them, combined with job-training to ensure people are placed on the road to recovery, healing, and economic independence. Third, end Oregon’s politician-created housing supply crisis so every Oregonian of any income level can afford to live here. Oregon needs to build 580,000 new housing units over the next two decades just to close our housing supply deficit and keep up with population growth. I will get the politicians and outdated rules, regulations, and fees out of the way so we can fast-track construction and reduce the cost of building all types of housing options so every Oregonian can afford a roof over their head and a place to call home.