On Oct. 7, 2015, one year ago, Portland City Council voted to declare a housing state of emergency. While many factors over time brought our community to this point, the declaration last fall was in direct response to two separate but connected issues: rising rental and housing costs affecting low-income Portlanders and an inadequate supply of indoor emergency shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness.
There are many people in the community working to address this issue and find emergency beds, but one elected official has consistently stepped forward with a series of small-scale emergency shelter options that, if continued, will add up to have a real impact on the crisis. This is Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
Let’s look at the history of what got us to this place. Our community first embarked on a coordinated effort to address homelessness in December 2004, with publication of Home Again: A 10-year plan to end homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County.
The plan was based on a “housing first” model that focused on finding permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, which is the right goal for any conversation around homelessness. However, as the 10-year plan was implemented, the number of emergency shelter beds in Portland and Multnomah County was reduced. While that shift away from shelters may have been well motivated, the result is that our community found itself with hundreds of people living outdoors as emergency shelters not only hit capacity but found themselves with long waiting lists. The community came to see that adequately addressing our homelessness crisis would require a continuum of options, including more permanent housing, transitional services and emergency beds, not to mention interventions like rental assistance that would help people avoid homelessness in the first place.
Today, a long-term coordinated plan is being developed through A Home for Everyone, an effort led by Multnomah County and the cities of Portland and Gresham, that brings together faith, philanthropic and business communities, as well as service providers, to work on long-term solutions to the housing and homelessness program. (Alliance board member Simone Brooks, president of Brooks Staffing, is a participant.) In addition, the new Joint Office on Homeless Services, which combines city and county resources to address homelessness, is being run out of Multnomah County under Chair Kafoury’s leadership. This important work on a long-term solution must be supported, but in the meantime, the community had an immediate need for additional safe, indoor shelter beds.
This is precisely where Chair Kafoury has stepped up during the past year with creative solutions that have led to three new emergency shelters, with one more opening its doors this month.
These are two permanent shelters, a 134-bed facility for women and children in a former strip club on Southeast Stark Street, a 90-bed facility for women that just opened in September on East Burnside Street in Gresham and a temporary 200-bed shelter for adults in the Hansen Building at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street. Finally, a third permanent shelter is set to open in the Sellwood neighborhood this month with 120 beds for couples.
This totals 544 new emergency beds that have been made available in Multnomah County during the past year. While this may not shelter all of the estimated 1,800 people who currently sleep outside in the Portland area, it is a dent and it is a tangible, humane response to the state of emergency.
This was only possible because the city of Portland and Multnomah County stepped up together to provide significant new financial resources to address this most pressing dilemma facing our community. And it would not have been possible if we didn’t have phenomenal service providers like Transition Projects, which stepped in more than once to open shelter capacity with very little advance notice.
I want also want to call out Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman for providing leadership on the affordable housing bond that will appear on the Portland ballot in November. If passed, the bond will enable the city to develop or preserve permanent housing for some of our lowest-income neighbors, which is sorely needed. The Alliance supports this bond, and we hope voters will as well.
Thanks also to Commissioner Nick Fish who has joined Commissioner Saltzman to build support for this very important ballot measure.
The private sector also has stepped up. We were very proud last year when the Barry Menashe Family, members of the Portland Business Alliance, offered use of a downtown office building for a temporary shelter during the winter months. And just last month, six health organizations, Adventist Health, CareOregon, Legacy Health, OHSU, Kaiser Permanente Health and Services, and Providence Health and Services, announced that they were jointly partnering with Central City Concern to provide $21.5 million to fund 382 affordable housing units.
If we have learned anything in the last year, it is that there is no silver bullet for dealing with the community’s housing and homeless crisis. But we do move forward when leaders step up to bring the private, public and nonprofit sectors together to work jointly on solutions. That is why I think it is important to say thank you to Chair Kafoury and all the other leaders who have come forward with real solutions this past year.
On the anniversary of the declaration of emergency, it’s important that we acknowledge the progress that has been made and that the business community, elected leaders, service providers and others stay at the table to keep this important work going. Swift, humane action is exactly the kind of response our community needs during a crisis.