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Keys to addressing Portland’s homelessness problem (OPINION)

Originally printed in The Oregonian on Sunday, October 18, 2015.

billandmikeRecently, Portland’s Mayor and Multnomah County’s Chair pledged an additional 30 million dollars to help solve the homeless crisis facing our community. This announcement was followed by City Council declaring a state of emergency regarding homelessness in Portland.

It’s obvious we have a countywide problem as tents sprout up in public spaces, people sleep in the doorways of businesses, our shelter system remains jam-packed, and affordable housing is nearly impossible to find. Enforcement of anti-camping laws is sporadic and only moves the problem from one neighborhood to another.

This new investment must provide increased shelter capacity, more affordable housing units, rent assistance, as well as other services called for in plans developed by A Home For Everyone, a coordinated effort by government agencies, elected leaders and various stakeholders to address homelessness in Multnomah County.

While it may be expensive, studies show it is less expensive to invest in supportive housing solutions than to leave people living on the street.

In order to leverage additional community resources to support this effort, we believe there are four key elements required to achieve measurable and sustainable reductions in the number of people who are homeless, provide relief to businesses and residents inundated with campers, and provide clear guidelines to police officers.

First, build a system that connects severely mentally ill people who are homeless to treatment and housing, and diverts them from the criminal justice system. A homeless provider recently pointed out that when we talk about a broken mental health system we’re implying we actually have a system. The reality is our police officers and jails are too often the default response to severely mentally ill people living on the streets of our community.

The anticipated opening of the Unity psychiatric emergency center will give police and mental health providers another option, but there must be housing and case management resources when people are inevitably released from this program. This alone will reduce the number of people living on the street, reduce the high public costs currently expended in the criminal justice system, and provide a better and more humane response for mentally ill community members.

Second, coordinate policies and efforts regarding illegal camping for all public spaces. In the city of Portland for example, the Parks Bureau, the Bureau of Transportation, the Bureau of Development Services, the Water Bureau, Oregon Department of Transportation and Multnomah County all have responsibility for maintaining public property, and all have different policies and practices regarding illegal camping. This makes enforcement challenging and inconsistent, allowing service-resistant individuals to exploit these gaps. This coordinated effort will visibly demonstrate government’s stewardship of public spaces for the benefit of all.

Third, put in place a compassionate, countywide, anti-camping enforcement strategy. Our initial outreach to people on the street should be access to shelter and a connection to a service provider. When outreach efforts are rejected, people contacted repeatedly for illegal camping should be held accountable and referred to community court to address the underlying cause of their behavior.

Finally, we need to establish clear standards of excellence and performance benchmarks for organizations receiving public funds. In support of these efforts, a transparent dashboard of information for the public to access is imperative, showing how well the various strategies are working and which organizations are meeting performance benchmarks.

Ending homelessness is a moral imperative that also makes financial sense and strengthens our community. We can benefit from the expertise of leaders in the many outstanding programs for the homeless already making a difference in our community. Portland and Multnomah County spend millions of dollars each year attempting to manage what appears to be an intractable problem- now is the time to support a comprehensive strategy with measurable, long-term goals.


Bill Barr

Chair of the Citizens Crime Commission

Mike Reese

Board member of Transitions Projects Inc. since 2007

Retired Chief of the Portland Police Bureau