Portland is #1 in homelessness, #2 joblessness, #3 in hunger

From KGW.com, July 16 2009

FOR REFERENCE – Oregon is ranked #1 in homelessness in the Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Resource Exchange’s Fourth Annual Homelessness Assessment. Over 20,000 Oregonians were homeless on a one-night count in January 2008, 0.54 of our population – one out of 200 people. Over the past 18 months social services have been eliminated and Oregon’s economy has turned downward – so there’s reason to suspect the number of homeless persons has increased.

Oregon ranks third in year-round beds provided per capita – 14,215.

If you’ve noticed more homeless on Portland’s sidewalks you’re not alone.

The federal government has just counted more homeless per capita in Oregon than anywhere in the nation.

Why are Portland city leaders frustrated? Portland is four years into it’s ten-year plan to end homelessness.

Despite finding housing for hundreds of chronically homeless, and despite reaching 60 percent of the plans goals, the demand for service is increasing because of the economy.

Also, in 2007, the Portland City Council gave police the authority to write non-criminal citations to anyone responsible for blocking city sidewalks.

A judge last month ruled the city ordinance unconstitutional because it’s pre-empted by state law so, effective immediately, Portland Police are no longer enforcing the sidewalk ordinance

This, at a time when homelessness is peaking in Portland and sleeping on sidewalks is becoming a more and more common sight.

“The whole principle was we want everyone to be able to use sidewalks,” said the city’s Housing Commissioner, Nick Fish. “The law was never intended to target any one particular group but with this ruling it means we have one fewer tool to use to keep the sidewalks unobstructed.”

Compounding the legal challenges, Oregon is now ranked first in homelessness, second in joblessness, and third in hunger nationally.

Social service providers like Transition Projects, Inc. are stretched thin.

“We’ve got about 400 people on the waiting list now,” said TCI’s Community Service Director, Fern Elledge.

Commissioner Fish is seeking solutions and looking for help from the public.

He and Commissioner Amanda Fritz will co-host town hall meetings this weekend and next Tuesday.

“Rather than engage in a divisive debate about our sidewalks let’s engage the whole community in a debate about how we solve the problem,” said Fish. “This cornerstone of solving the problem is this resource access center.”

The $47 million resource access center will break ground in October, offering shelter, counseling, showers and job resources to help stabilize the lives of those in need. The city is paying $27 million of the total cost.

“Throwing money at the problem really encourages more of that problem,” said John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute.

Charles says Portland is “rolling out the welcome mat” to the homeless by increasing funding services.

He also criticizes city policies that encourage urban density because those policies make housing less affordable.

Charles says Dignity Village, a self-governed homeless village sanctioned by the city on land near PDX Airport, is the perfect model of self-help among the homeless.

Homeless villager Gaye Reyes agrees.

“The government doesn’t help us here. We’re self-supporting, self-sustaining. We built these (temporary houses) ourselves. Nobody came in and did it for us, Reyes said.

Fish says Dignity Village is a successful experiment on a small scale, but it cannot serve the 1600 people sleeping on the streets of Portland.

Fish says the city should stick to its ten-year plan to end homelessness even in tough times.

EXTRA – The Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Resource Exchange
READ – The HUD HRE Fourth Annual National Homelessness Assessment (PDF 5.6 MB)
EXTRA – the Housing Authority of Portland’s Resource Access Center planning page
READ / LISTEN – Report Says Oregon Leads Nation In New Homeless People, OPB.org
READ – Oregon leads nation in homeless count, Portland Tribune
READ – Portland grapples with homeless issue after ruling on sidewalk ordinance, Oregonian
READ / WATCH – Report: Ore. has highest per-capita homelessness in the nation, KDRV.com Medford
READ – Oregon homeless to get help from federal agency, Oregonian
READ – Home Again, A 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness – brochure (PDF .5 MB)
EXTRA – Portland Housing Bureau, Portland agency responsible for coordinating services for homeless persons