PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Local lawmakers, experts, non-profit leaders and concerned community members gathered for a town hall discussion on Portland’s homeless crisis.
The hour-long special titled, “The Unsheltered Truth: Searching for Solutions,” aired on Wednesday and was moderated by KOIN 6 anchor Jeff Gianola. It featured some of Portland’s prominent political and social figures, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioner Dan Ryan, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, County Director for the Joint Office of Homeless Services Shannon Singleton and Blanchet House Executive Director Scott Kerman.
Wheeler, who was offered the first opportunity to speak at the meeting, said that getting Portland’s homeless residents off the streets and into affordable housing is a top priority.
“I do not believe having people live in potentially dangerous and squalid conditions in our city is a compassionate response,” Wheeler said. “Our focus has to be with the understanding that people living on our streets are experiencing significant trauma, but that it’s also causing people: the residents, the neighborhoods, the small businesses trauma too.”
Wheeler said that homeless residents are currently waiting as long as three years to get access to housing. This is partly due to the City of Portland’s need for an estimated 20,000 additional affordable housing units.
“We have to get people off the streets as quickly, safely and humanely as possible,” he said. “That means investing in alternative shelters, giving people access to a place that has [hygienic conditions] and potentially navigation to services to get people off the streets, and ultimately to that transitional or permanent housing that they need.”
In an effort to clean up the city and move more of Portland’s homeless residents into temporary housing, the city has recently increased the number of homeless camp sweeps across the city. However, Scott Kerman of Blanchet House, a nonprofit that provides meals and clothing to Portland’s homeless, said at the town hall meeting that the sweeps are like tornadoes that displace homeless people and fail to solve the underlying issues.
“The sweep occurs and then they show up at breakfast the next morning and they have lost their clothing, they have lost their tent, they’ve lost their sleeping bag, they’re very disoriented, they’re very angry, they’ve lost some of their community,” Kerman said.
Local citizens like Terrance Moses of the group Neighbors Helping Neighbors are also working to clean up Portland, volunteering as many as six days a week to pick up the significant amount of trash left in Portland’s public spaces as a result of the homeless camps.
“The bottom line is we’re addressing a trash issue, we’re not addressing a human issue,” Moses said at the town hall. “We’re just removing trash.”
Local leaders like Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, meanwhile, are focusing their efforts on building temporary and long-term housing to get Portland’s homeless off the streets.
“When I took over the job of chair, we had about 650 shelter beds in the entire County of Multnomah,” Kafoury said. “Today we have [more than] 2,500 shelter beds.”
The county’s first Behavioral Health and Resource Center is also scheduled to open next month in the Bushong & Co building at 333 SW Park Ave. after the county purchased the property in January of 2019. The four-story, partially peer-led facility is designed to help homeless residents suffering with severe mental health and substance abuse issues that often can’t transition to more traditional shelters. When finished, the building will be able to house as many as 210 people on a daily basis.
“People want to feel comfortable around somebody who’s been through the experience that they’re going through,” Kafoury said. “We want people to come in. A lot of folks who have mental health [issues] are going through a crisis. They don’t want to come inside. They’re fearful, they’ve been traumatized before in a similar situation. So [we’ll have] someone who understands what they’re going through to entice them to come in with sandwiches, comfortable chairs, laundry facilities, a chance to call your mom.”
While the City of Portland and the County of Multnomah continue to work toward building more housing facilities to address the region’s long-term homeless issues, Wheeler said that these projects take a significant amount of time to finance, plan and complete. In response, the mayor said that the city will also remain focused on short-term solutions that will provide Portland’s homeless residents with more humane living conditions.
“My point isn’t to forget that [building affordable housing] is the North Star that we’re aiming toward,” Wheeler said. “My point is that people are dying on the streets today in substandard, squalid, dangerous conditions, and it’s impacting the entirety of our city.”
Approximately 350 active homeless camps are estimated to exist throughout the city — a number that Wheeler said is too high to adequately offer available homeless services to each person in need.
“We need to have a fighting chance of getting services to those people to help get them off the street and help them find that housing,” he said. “With that number of campsites, it’s very hard to do that. That’s why getting people off the streets is a necessary first step toward navigating them toward mental health or substance abuse treatment, or job training, or housing or any of the other services that they need.”