About 180 people, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, attended an educational forum Saturday focused on seeking solutions related to homelessness in downtown Portland.
The forum was organized by Portland’s Downtown Neighborhood Association and included panels focused on mental health, addiction and public safety.
It was attended by downtown homeowners, renters, employees, business owners and people who have experienced homelessness.
Wheeler gave the opening address, touching on some of the things the city and Multnomah County have done to assist people experiencing homelessness — such as homeless prevention services through the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
“This is my top priority, full stop. It is what I spend the majority of my time on. It is what I think about all of the time,” Wheeler said. “We have spent considerable resources. We have innovated in many new ways. We have built new partnerships. We have tried new strategies, and I am very proud of the work that we have done.”
Wheeler also touched on Portland Street Response, a program recently approved by Portland City Council that will designate people trained in mental and behavioral health to respond to low-priority calls including people experiencing homelessness.
“In addition to that, we have greatly expanded, in fact we have provided record levels of affordable housing,” Wheeler said. “And the frontier for that, the next step, is supportive housing, where to get the most chronically homeless off of our streets, we not only put them in housing, but we also provide them the services they need in that housing in order to stay in that housing and be successful in that housing.”
Those services could be anywhere from addiction services to job training, he said.
“We’re working hard already to achieve those objectives,” Wheeler said.
Stephanie Hansen, a member of the board of directors of the Portland Downtown Neighborhood Association, also spoke at the forum, specifically about her experiences as someone who had formerly experienced homelessness downtown.
Wheeler called her an example of a “success story.”
Hansen was living and working in Portland’s Hollywood District until she was diagnosed with cancer and lost her job. She was living in subsidized housing, but periodically failed housing inspections due to chronic depression.
“I was couch-surfing, I was sleeping outside. I spent several nights sleeping in hospital emergency rooms,” Hansen said.
She eventually got into Jean’s Place, a transitional housing shelter ran by the nonprofit Transition Projects.
After her time in Jean’s Place, Transition Projects helped Hansen find housing downtown.
“They paid my rent and utilities for a little over two years until I had an income and could take that over myself,” Hansen said. “Now I pay my own rent and utilities and spend my time trying to give back.”
“Even now, I still worry about my housing,” she said. “There’s not enough affordable housing. I’ve gone through two rent increases in the unit I’m at, and if those continue, I will be priced out.”
She encouraged the forum attendees to brainstorm solutions to help both the housed and unhoused communities in Portland.
Organizers for the forum said the event is the first step for the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s housing task force to understand and develop solutions for the area.
“First we need to understand the issue as fully and as comprehensively as we can,” said Darlene Urban Garrett, with the Association. “Consider a Portland five years in the future where we have solved our homelessness problem. Think about that — what have we done to do that? What should we be doing to make that happen? What can we do as a community?”
“One thing we know for sure is that it will take all of us,” she said. “This is not a problem just for the city or our nonprofit service providers to solve. We are all in this together.”