The Portland region is making big investments to address the area’s growing homelessness crisis. Among the latest efforts is Metro’s Supportive Housing Services tax. It was approved by voters in 2020 and began doling out money last year. The fund is projected to pump around $225 million every year into projects to help end homelessness, until 2030.
Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties submitted their first year outcomes from the fund to Metro last month. In these summaries counties reported promising work, including getting more than 1,600 people housed and connecting over 9,000 people with eviction prevention services.
But a new report from the Portland-based consulting group ECONorthwest suggests that money alone won’t solve the region’s homelessness problem. The report compares Metro’s initiative to a similar one in California’s Los Angeles County.
OPB’s Tiffany Camhi spoke with Lorelei Juntunen, president of ECONorthwest about what Portlanders can take away from this report.
Tiffany Camhi: Echo Northwest was commissioned by a new local group called Homeless Strategies and Solutions Initiative to put together this report. Can we just start off with why Metro’s Supportive Housing Services tax (SHS) was compared to Los Angeles’s measure H?
Lorelei Juntunen: Fundamentally, they’re attempting to solve similar problems, which is to fund some of the proven long term measures that can help address homelessness. So on the service side, that includes long term rental vouchers and eviction prevention.
Camhi: And wasn’t the Metro Supportive Housing Services tax modeled after measure H?
Juntunen: That’s correct. It was. And [L.A.] has a running start on us so we have some lessons we can learn from how the implementation has been going.
Camhi: Just going by the numbers. It looks like L.A.’s Measure H is successful: tens of thousands of people have received long term financial assistance for housing or found some sort of shelter. But those numbers don’t really match up with what people are seeing on the ground. What did this research find about the public perception of homelessness?
Juntunen: Much like what we’re experiencing here in Portland, public perception is that homelessness is continuing to get worse. That’s despite the investments that are being made in long term interventions to try to help people move into housing and stay in their housing. And I think part of the reason for that is that these long term solutions are really fighting against some complicated and systemic challenges that are bigger than individual level supports.
Camhi: Right and it seems like L.A. is really struggling with whether to put money towards short term solutions, like shelters, or long term ones, like building more affordable housing. You mentioned that L.A. is farther along than Portland. What can we take away from their efforts to end homelessness?
Juntunen: My biggest takeaway from this research is that it has to be a “Both/And” solution. We absolutely have to be investing in the longer term solutions that we know work and those short term solutions. Pitting the two of them against each other just means that it will be harder for us to achieve the solutions that we know will work.
Camhi: So that means putting investments in both of those areas: long term and short term solutions?
Juntunen: Yeah, and not making it a zero-sum game where we have to choose between them. I think some of the risk is recognizing that we do have short term needs.
Camhi: The report also says that homeless Point-in-Time Counts should not be the only measure of Metro’s SHS success, but that they inevitably will be one of them. So knowing that, how should Metro use these counts in its outcomes reporting?
Juntunen: The first thing to know about Point-in-Time Counts is that the data are notoriously bad and don’t do a particularly good job of capturing the true number of people who are experiencing homelessness.
People should expect to see houseless people served and to see great improvements in individual lives around things like housing stability and educational outcomes. But as it relates to street homelessness, we should not expect to be seeing a 1-1 correlation with people served and reductions in street homelessness.
Big picture, we’re in this for the long haul. I mean, these are called long-term solutions for a reason. It’s going to take quite a number of years before we start to see real changes occurring and ultimately homelessness is a housing supply and affordability problem. And the real benefit of the Metro SHS program is that it buys us time to get the housing solutions that are the ultimate long term solutions right. We need more of it. We need to be paying more attention to the short term solutions and we need to be continuing to pay attention to longer term housing production and affordability issues. It’s like we have to figure out how to pat our heads and rub our bellies, all at the same time.