Opinion: Addressing Portland's two homeless crises

Opinion: Addressing Portland's two homeless crises

By John Tapogna and Madeline Baron

Last month, Forbes magazine named Portland one of the best places in the country for business and careers. But few noticed. The public's attention has turned to those the economy has left behind -- people living on the streets, in cars, or in emergency shelters.

The homeless crisis dominated state and local elections, and rival candidates found little common ground. They debated camping regulations, sit-lie ordinances, street clean ups, and the use of the Wapato jail as a shelter. Policy price tags ranged from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars. The Oregonian's Molly Harbarger rightly noted few issues are as complex or inspire as much passion. 

Away from the campaigns and news cycles, the Oregon Community Foundation asked our firm to evaluate the issue with the hope of creating a broader understanding on causes and possible solutions.

Here's what the report found.

The divisive political debate reflects the public's disagreement about the root causes of homelessness. Asked in an October 2017 survey whether homelessness and housing costs were linked, a narrow majority of Portlanders agreed. A sizable minority said personal traits, like drug addiction and mental health issues, were the key drivers. 

So, which is it? The cost of housing or personal traits? Or both?

To answer these questions, we looked across the country to identify where homeless crises are most severe. And, the data couldn't be clearer. High-rent regions -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle and Portland -- lead the nation in homelessness. By contrast, rates are low across Appalachia, a center of the nation's opioid crisis and a so-called disability belt. If drug addiction and disability were the key drivers of homelessness, West Virginia and Arkansas' crises would rival ours. They don't come close.

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