From the outside, it looks like Madison McGee and her three teenagers have it all together. Her kids wear nice clothes and brand name shoes, like Nikes. She shuttles them to and from basketball practice in a 2016 Dodge Caravan. And McGee has what she calls a good-paying, full-time job as a facilities administrator at Adidas.
But a medical emergency last October was all it took for McGee and her family to come close to being homeless.
“The doctors said I had an infection throughout my body,” said McGee, who sought medical care after suffering from severe chest pains. “I stayed in the hospital for seven days.”
McGee’s recovery from a sepsis diagnosis was rocky. She went back and forth from the hospital that month for dehydration, infection flare-ups and a fall that injured her legs. McGee, 36, is also a single mother and the sole provider for her three teenagers. So even just a few days of unpaid time off makes it difficult for her to pay the bills.
But rent was still due for December. So she went back to work in early November, even though she was in pain. McGee said she couldn’t afford not to.
“I just had no help,” said McGee. “I know I went back to work too soon. I just didn’t know what to do.”
But the financial damage was already done. McGee knew she would not be able to come up with the money to cover the $1,600 rent for her two-bedroom Oregon City apartment. She also knew she would do everything in her power to avoid an eviction notice.
“My kids have never been homeless. I’ve never been homeless,” said McGee. “I’m not going to let them know what being homeless is like.”
McGee Googled rental assistance and called 211. She struck out a few times with other organizations that required an eviction notice first before offering support. She eventually found help through the homeless family services nonprofit Path Home, which serves the Portland metro area. McGee, who is quick to help others but finds it difficult to ask for help herself, said she was shocked to get assistance from anyone.
“It just doesn’t happen a lot,” said McGee. “As crazy as it sounds, I don’t get a lot of help with having three kids and making $24 an hour.”
After an intake process, Path Home was able to quickly cut a $1,600 check to cover McGee’s December rent.
With the end of state and local eviction protections and the rapid rise in inflation, more people in the Portland metro area are teetering on the edge of homelessness. One of the ways to help is to prevent them from losing their homes through eviction prevention programs. But local housing and homelessness experts say evictions are up in Oregon and there’s not enough resources to meet demand.
Keeping families with homes, housed
McGee worked closely with Path Home’s Homelessness Prevention Coordinator, Samuel Freni-Rothschild, to get rental assistance. She was just one of the dozens of people who reached out to Freni-Rothschild in November. The first week of every month is always the busiest for him.
“Sometimes people will text me at like four in the morning or at midnight,” said Freni-Rothschild, who encourages potential clients to apply for assistance on the first of the month, when funds are readily available.
Freni-Rothschild said the idea of the program is to help families who have a history of housing and financial stability to maintain their current living situation, reduce the amount of people who might otherwise become homeless and prevent families from experiencing the trauma of homelessness.
“We are never going to really and truly address the homelessness crisis if we don’t stem the flow of new households into homelessness,” said Freni-Rothschild. “We need to help people keep their housing in the first place.”
The program provides financial assistance of up to $4,000 per household for a period of one to four months. Families also have to meet three criteria to qualify for assistance: proof of a steady income that would normally cover rent, have at least one person in the household who is under 18, and an income that may not exceed more than 65% of the area median income. Unlike most eviction prevention programs, Path Home does not require an eviction notice for a family to receive assistance.
Preventing homelessness is also more cost-effective than helping families without shelter find housing, said Brandi Tuck, executive director of Path Home.
“When we help families move from homelessness into housing, it costs about $15,000 on average per household,” said Tuck. “That’s compared to only $3,000 on average per household to prevent homelessness before it starts.”
More than 60% of people served by the nonprofit identify as BIPOC, according to Tuck. McGee and her family identify as Black, Indigenous and white.
Single-parent households in East County are the most likely to reach out to Path Home for rental assistance and most people seeking assistance are employed with full-time jobs. The MIT living wage calculator estimates that a single-parent, one-child household with one income in the Portland metro area should make at least $40.67 an hour to support their family.
“A lot of the people I serve have jobs that you would probably consider to be good-paying jobs,” said Freni-Rothschild. “A lot of people I serve make $25 an hour, but that’s their sole income.”
And, like McGee, what sets most of his clients back is either a sick child or parent.
The program, which runs on a yearly budget of around $240,000 a year, is privately funded through grants and contributions. Freni-Rothschild said the program is small and can sometimes feel like a drop in the bucket when it comes to addressing homelessness. He can typically only help eight to 10 families a month.
Money poured in for eviction prevention
Even though Path Home’s homelessness prevention program continues to run out of money every month, the amount of funding for eviction prevention in the Portland metro area has increased dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic.
Multnomah County’s rental assistance budget for fiscal year 2021 grew from $8 million the previous year to $42 million, according to Peggy Samolinski, director of the Youth and Family Services division of the Department of County Human Services (DCHS). The county’s eviction prevention dollars were bolstered again in the 2022 budget to more than $100 million. This year the eviction prevention budget sits at $67 million.
“Suddenly we’re flooded in a good way, for all good reasons, with a lot of resources,” said Samonlinski.
Samolinski’s department was charged with doling out the county’s small eviction prevention program before the pandemic, but she said DCHS could not handle the influx of money on its own. So DCHS, along with Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, partnered with the Portland Housing Bureau and the housing authority, Home Forward, to develop a way to quickly and equitably administer rental assistance to those most in need.
“We worked as a cross jurisdictional partnership to create one system,’ said Samolinski. " That was an emergency response and we’re still in that place.”
The partnership used community-based social and homeless service providers and created new programs to give out rental assistance dollars.
Those efforts have helped thousands of people in the Portland area pay rent and stay housed. According to the Portland Housing Bureau, more than 20,000 households have received COVID emergency rent assistance since 2021. And more than $93.9 million, including staff costs, has gone towards rental assistance programs in the county.
Who gets help as the need for assistance rises?
Even with all this new money available, evictions are on the rise in Oregon and eviction filings are now surpassing pre-pandemic levels. Portland State University researchers found a spike in statewide evictions beginning last fall and a continued uptick in filings since then. The most recent data available logged 2,324 eviction filings last month. That’s compared to a monthly average of about 1,500 filings in 2019.
“People are flooded with calls for rent assistance right now,” said Samolinski.
The spike is largely due to the expiration of statewide tenant protections on Sept. 30, 2022. The so-called “safe harbor” protections barred landlords from evicting tenants for not paying rent if residents proved they had applied for rental assistance. A provision that extended the termination notice period from 72 hours to 10 days also expired at the same time.
The swift expansion of homelessness prevention programs in the county and the overwhelming need for eviction services has also meant that some organizations and some people were left out. At the beginning of the pandemic, the county’s cross-jurisdictional partnership made a conscious decision to utilize existing relationships with community-based organizations and homeless services nonprofits to distribute money.
“We had those organizations and we decided we’re gonna build on that rather than invite a host of other organizations,” said Samolinksi. “We’ve just sort of been in this, ‘how do we sustain this?’ mode.”
Some nonprofits like Path Home were not included. That exclusion meant Path Home potentially missed out on thousands of dollars that could have gone to its homelessness prevention efforts.
The county also must work under the different constraints of each funding source. Samolinski estimates that the county has received more than 20 local, state and federal sources of money for eviction prevention since 2020. Each pot of money has its own eligibility requirements, such as an individual must be in financial distress due to COVID-19 or they must have an eviction notice in hand.
Choosing which individuals and families should receive rental assistance is another limitation. Eviction prevention programs often lean towards helping individuals who are already at a low risk of becoming homeless, according to Vanderbilt University professor Beth Shinn.
“Most eviction prevention has a fairly minor impact on homelessness,” said Shinn, who studies ways to prevent and end homelessness. “Most people who have places from which they can be evicted from are in better shape than people who don’t have [housing].”
Still, Shinn said, working to prevent people from getting displaced is a worthy cause. An eviction prevention program in Chicago showed that individuals who got rental assistance were 76% less likely to end up in a shelter six months after receiving aid, compared to those who sought money but did not receive anything due to a lack of funding. Multnomah County’s pre-pandemic eviction prevention effort, the Short-Term Rental Assistance Program, consistently resulted in at least 70% of households maintaining housing stability a year after receiving assistance, according to Home Forward.
There are other, more proven ways to prevent homelessness that are more effective than just stopping evictions, said Shinn. The Housing Choice Voucher Program, provided by the The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is one of them. These vouchers generally pay up to 70% of rent costs for individuals who earn less than half of an area’s median income.
“Anything that reduces housing costs or increases incomes for folks at the bottom of the income distribution will have a broad societal function of preventing homelessness, in the sense of generating less of it,” said Shinn.
Massively expanding and bolstering this federal program, as well as other social services, are among the current best strategies to prevent homelessness for people who are on the brink, said Shinn.
Operating in a condition of scarcity
Another problem for homelessness and eviction prevention programs in the Portland area is that there are simply not enough resources to fill the need long-term. The partnership between Multnomah County and community organizations is operating on a smaller budget this fiscal year. And a lot of that money can be sourced back to one-time, emergency state or federal funds related to the pandemic. Ian Slingerland, Director of Homeless Initiatives at Home Forward, said the partnership is expecting smaller budgets in years to come, even as renters brace for housing cost increases and inflation remains persistently high.
“Even though the pandemic is resolving to a greater or lesser degree, the continued need for emergency and short term rental assistance exists,” said Slingerland. “We need to recognize that, for a lot of folks, the disparities between their incomes and housing costs can’t be resolved in a couple of years.”
Narrowing down exactly what long term rental assistance needs are is not easy. Peggy Samolinski said the partnership uses data from eviction court filings and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey to estimate rental assistance demand.
“We think there could be as much as $100 million worth of need in Multnomah County,” said Samolinski. “That’s a pretty conservative estimate.”
But more resources could be coming soon from the state. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s proposed budget includes $73 million for long term homelessness prevention programs statewide.
And some renter protection policies that expired last fall could return this year. A bill moving through the state Legislature would slow down eviction proceedings and give tenants more time to access rental assistance.
In the meantime, the county partnership is looking ahead to the future and rethinking how to best serve the community post-pandemic. The group is reaching out to community partners for feedback on how the current eviction prevention system is working. It also plans to open up a procurement process in the next 18 months to welcome new providers into the rental assistance partnership, according to Slingerland. That means other homeless services organizations, like Path Home, could expand their homelessness prevention programs.
“They have my back”
Madison McGee received another $815 from Path Home at the beginning of February. It’s enough to cover half of her rent and it will probably be the last bit of financial support she’ll get from the nonprofit. Even so, McGee said the help she’s received over the past three months is getting her back on track.
“It’s been so nice the past few months just knowing that my rent is paid,” said McGee. “I sleep different, you know?”
The money has freed up McGee’s main source of income so she could begin to pay past due utility bills to make sure her family has running water and electricity. She also paid past due car and insurance payments, another financial strain for her. And McGee was even able to put a little bit of money away for savings.
“I can see a light at the end of the tunnel now,” said McGee. “I don’t feel like me and my kids will ever be homeless.”