Justin Martinez was young, in ninth grade, when he first experienced homelessness.
That year, he said he started living in a station wagon with his mom, dad and two brothers.
They parked it behind his high school in Truckee, a small town in northern California. “It was a snowy winter. We were hungry, barely keeping warm,” Martinez said.
“I flipped out in the car. I started slamming my head against the window. I remember that clear as day.”
To calm him, he said his mother handed him a pill with codeine in it. He said during that tough winter in the car, the pills helped him relax.
That was the beginning of his long struggle with addiction.
“Eventually it led to heroin, because that’s the cheapest, strongest opiate,” he said.
Martinez spent the next 17 years living on the streets in Portland. At times, he shoplifted to support his habit, and went in and out of treatment programs and jail.
“It’s been a rough road,” he said. “I could never really get off the streets. I cost the city a lot of money.”
But on Wednesday, Martinez testified before the Portland City Council in support of the solution he says stabilized his life and ended his addiction and homeless — permanent supportive housing.
It’s subsidized housing linked to services that address the root causes of homelessness, like mental illness and addiction.
In a unanimous vote, the council approved a plan to develop at least 2,000 units of permanent supportive housing by 2028. The plan is currently unfunded.
Multnomah County, which shares responsibility for providing services to homeless people with the city, will vote on a similar resolution Thursday.
The resolution was sponsored by Mayor Ted Wheeler, along with Commissioners Nick Fish and Chloe Eudaly.
“Chronically homeless men and women are the hardest to house, face the greatest barriers, and face the highest risk of dying on our streets,” Fish said. “A roof over their heads is not enough. They also need supportive services.”
The city counted 4,177 people who were living on the street or in cars, in emergency shelters, and in transitional housing during its annual one-night homeless count in 2017.
Fighting tears, Martinez described the interventions that helped him after more than a decade of chronic homelessness.
He said getting diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar schizoaffective disorder, and receiving medication for mental illness helped him understand his drug addiction.
“I realized, once I was given the meds for my mental health, that I was self-medicating all those years,” he said.
Then, he moved into a studio in the Bud Clark Commons, an apartment run by the nonprofit Home Forward that provides housing an a variety of services to homeless men in Portland.
“I used every resource that was available. I kept taking my meds, kept doing the next right thing. I got my driver's license. I graduated a pre-apprentice program,” he said.
Martinez now works for Home Forward, the public housing authority for Multnomah County, that helped house him.
“Now I’m a taxpayer, and I would like nothing more than my tax dollars to go toward more housing opportunities, like I got,” he said.
The council based its target of 2,000 new permanent supportive housing units on a need estimate conducted by the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a New York research and advocacy nonprofit.
Using Portland’s one-night homelessness count and other data, the group estimated that Multnomah County needs approximately 2,800 units of permanent supportive housing.
CSH estimated the cost of providing those units at $413 million.
The City Council did not provide an estimate of how much local funding it would take to meet the new goal of 2,000 units by 2028.
“We don’t have a price tag,” Wheeler said. “We’re being completely open-minded. All options are on the table.”
Earlier this year, Portland taxpayers passed a $258 million bond measure for affordable housing, the first of its kind in Portland.
The bond requires the city to create or acquire at least 1,300 units affordable for people making 60 percent or less of the median income in the metro area.
The council plans to direct most of that funding to build units for families who have low annual income and families of color.
At the request of Commissioner Fish, the council also agreed to fund at least 300 units of permanent supportive housing with the bond.