PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Shannon Singleton dropped out of the race for Multnomah County Chair to take the job as interim director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Even though she is the interim director, she has endless work ahead of her. She took over after Marc Jolin, the first and only director the Joint Office has had since it was created by the City of Portland and Multnomah County.
Some have called this job thankless.
“I think that’s the reality of social work, period. There’s not a lot of positions I’ve held in my career where somebody isn’t mad about some decision I’ve made,” she said. “We’ve all been frustrated and everybody is justified in their level of frustration.”
In her career Shannon Singleton worked to pass the Metro Housing Bond and the $250 million a year it’s bringing to combat homelessness. She worked for Gov. Kate Brown as a housing policy advisor and has years working in shelter programs and mental health outreach.
She gave up her quest to be Multnomah County Chair because she thought she could have had an immediate impact on the homeless crisis as the leader of the Joint Office.
“I think my Number 1 challenge is going to continue to be our housing market. This lack of affordability is a huge struggle,” Singleton told KOIN 6 News. “We really continue to have a lot of folks sleeping outside and in our shelters who are on a fixed income from Social Security and that’s not going to change. And so we have to solve for the problem of folks who make $700-plus a month.”
Singleton is a firm believer in the housing-first model, getting people into safe housing even if they refuse mental health or drug treatment. The model has seen growing pushback from neighbors of Safe Rest Villages who are concerned about their safety — and from some experts who work with the homeless.
“We’ll continue to say it’s a both end solution, but we’re not ready to throw out one of the most robustly researched practices we have in social work,” she said. “I agree that there’s pushback that’s rooted in this idea that it is a philosophy. I’m not sure that people fully understand or have spent time looking at the research and data.”
Singleton said Portland needs additional federal investment in affordable housing and social programs like rent assistance, childcare and job training, plus increased access to medical and mental health treatment to help people teetering on the edge of homelessness.
“Those problems have not been solved and we are not necessarily seeing all the same people who are outside. So at the same time that we’re seeing success and thousands of families and households and people move back into housing every year, we’re also seeing more people falling to homelessness every year.”
During the pandemic, local policies were adopted to severely limit the number of people who moved out of homeless camps in an effort to help stop the spread of the virus.
Some view that as enabling and a root cause of why the homeless crisis has gotten out of control.
“I like to remind people,” she said, “we have many housed neighbors who have addiction and/or mental health challenges that are in various forms of treatment, and we don’t dehumanize them because we don’t see what’s happening in their home. I’d like to bring that same sort of empathy and understanding to folks that, simply because they’re unhoused, doesn’t make them less human.”
She does feel the pain of homeowners who say homeless people come into their yards, steal belongings, have sex in public and deal drugs. But she said it’s another both end situation.
“We have community members who are housed and are unhoused and have various concerns and issues around safety and different definitions of safety,” Singleton said. “So absolutely have space to hear that and want to move to talking about what the actual solutions are and implementing those solutions as a community. I think we get stuck oftentimes in wanting to be right about our opinion, as opposed to being willing to move forward.”
People often say this region enabled people to move here to live homeless. Singleton doesn’t agree and points to statistics from the 2019 Point In Time homeless count: 143 people — just 7% — of the homeless in the area said they came to Multnomah County at least in part to receive available services.
Comparable numbers from the most recent Point In Time count are not out yet.
Though she is currently the interim director, she said she’s open to exploring the idea of applying for the permanent position.
And she acknowledged it’s going to take years to turn the corner on this homeless crisis.
Asked if she ever feels hopeless, Shannon Singleton said not really.
“I think there are times where things feel really overwhelming, but I’ve had the privilege of doing direct service in the way that I remember to hold onto the hope of that one person in front of me. I can feel hope in one person’s story and be able to keep moving, knowing that that’s possible for the next person that we see in our system. So yes, there’s times I absolutely feel overwhelmed or the task feels daunting, but hope is a piece of what I think, I get to and continue to hold onto and really strive to hold onto.”