PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Kevin Dahlgren isn’t a typical homeless advocate. The Portland-area drug counselor says he has spent 28 years helping people on the streets along with advising cities and counties.
Dahlgren has received national attention by arguing that cities and social service agencies are enabling homelessness and fostering dependency among the people they say they’re trying to help.
“What we’re getting wrong is the crisis continues to grow as the budgets grow,” Dahlgren said – noting that over the last two decades, he’s seen the issue become a “multi-million-dollar industry.”
“We enable, we do not empower these individuals to reach their fullest potential,” Dahlgren said. “What we’re getting wrong is we’re not helping these individuals thrive. We’re simply loving them to death out there and I witness this personally, dozens and dozens of times.”
Instead, Dahlgren says Oregon needs to change its approach to addressing homelessness.
As Governor Kotek signed the $200 million homelessness and affordable housing package into law in late March, Dahlgren says “if money were the solution, we would have already solved it by now.”
“Having done this for a couple decades now, hearing how more money is thrown towards the problem always frustrates me but I am at least cautiously optimistic this time because the right people are saying the right things that we need measurable results and question the status quo,” Dahlgren said.
The drug and alcohol counselor said he “absolutely” agrees with Gov. Kotek’s decision to withhold funding from Multnomah County and Portland for not having detailed plans explaining how they would address homelessness.
“Finally, people are saying, ‘Stop. How are you spending the money and how are you going to solve this?’ Because the fact is, over the last seven years since the Joint Office of Homeless Services was established, our crisis has gone through the roof,” Dahlgren said. “So, as more money is poured into solving this problem, the problem continues to grow, which means money isn’t the solution.”
The homeless population also includes some who have built illegal cabins on the banks of the Willamette River. Dahlgren calls the scene “dystopian.”
“A lot of the cabins were built out of thousands of pieces of driftwood and really what was shocking is how much time it took to build these cabins and how somehow this was overlooked for so many years,” Dahlgren said.
“Stuff like this is allowed to happen because of just the lack of outreach, the lack of oversight, the lack of attention of what’s actually going on on the street level,” Dahlgren added. “This is the natural result when a government does nothing to solve this crisis. The homeless will adapt and build their own homes.”
Adding to homelessness, Dahlgren says, is fentanyl on the streets — calling it one of the worst things he’s ever seen.
“Fentanyl has changed the game. It’s 50 times stronger than heroin, it’s virtually replaced all other drugs in the streets. In fact, even people who use other drugs are using it laced with fentanyl,” Dahlgren said. “I’m out there every day. Overdoses and deaths are very common. It’s devastating.”
Dahlgren says he’s opposed to Oregon Measure 110, which decriminalized some drugs.
“Decriminalization of drugs is the worst thing we could have ever done. We’ve given people who lack critical thinking, rational thought, the ability to use now as much as they want and what it’s doing is it’s killing them,” Dahlgren said.
The first thing Oregon needs to do, in Dahlgren’s view, is address the lack of outreach teams and build trust within the homeless community.
“Our system oftentimes talks about affordable housing like that’s going to end homelessness. Well, that’s like step eight or nine of the process. Step one is the approach, it’s building that trust. That’s not happening,”
Clackamas County recently approved buying a motel off of Interstate 205 for transitional housing until County Chair Tootie Smith reversed her vote and decided to not move forward with the plan.
Dahlgren respects Chair Smith’s vote and says it was not a good idea.
“It was one motel, it was under the Housing First model where you house a person without expectations and then once they’re in there, there’s no wraparound-type care services so it, really no solving the problem. It’s just hiding the problem.”
Instead, Dahlgren thinks a recovery model is better to provide addiction services.
“This is less of a homeless issue or a housing issue. This is a drug issue. This is a mental health issue. We tackle those issues first; the homeless piece is going to be a lot easier to solve.”