October 11, 2021

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Complex problems demand complex solutions. Two of the most complex problems our community faces right now are houselessness and community safety. Both are areas I’ve discussed previously -- but I don’t think we can over-emphasize them. And neither lends itself to sound bites; so buckle in for a lengthy one.

Houselessness 

I spent an afternoon last month accompanying members of Cascadia Behavioral Health Care’s homeless outreach team as they did their work. We visited homeless encampments ialong Marine Drive and NE 33rd, locations that have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people camped in RVs and cars. Members of the outreach team visit these locations every week, handing out water, socks, pet food, and, on this hot afternoon, popsicles. As they move through the encampments, they also ask people if they need help finding housing, whether they have been taking their medications, and whether they need any other help.

Everyone we talked to had been experiencing houselessness for a very long time. Some said they’d take a congregate shelter spot if available; others were not interested. One man explained that he found it stressful to be around so many other people indoors, was afraid that someone would steal his phone, and was afraid of getting COVID. All said they wanted permanent housing, and identified specific characteristics of the housing that would work for them: minimal rules and regulations regarding substance use and pets, for example; locations accessible to services they relied on or to their jobs; and settings that would accommodate other members of their houseless community. I saw up close the health and safety crisis being experienced every day. At most of the camps we visited, I saw no toilet nearby. All had piles of trash (as distinct from items that appeared to be claimed as someone’s possessions). And we heard about violence - both from other campers and from passers-by. 

What struck me most that day was that getting someone out of chronic houselessness is not a linear process. It takes consistent, compassionate care; relationship-building; and, most of all, meeting them where they are - all things I observed the outreach team providing. And there is no one solution that will meet everyone’s needs. 

So what are we doing, and what should we be doing, to address this crisis on our streets?

I’ve been consistent in my view that permanent housing is the solution to houselessness. This doesn’t rely only on building new housing; it can and will also be done by paying rent subsidies that make existing units affordable, in addition to the housing support, mental health, and behavioral services that people need to retain housing. 

We also need to provide shelter: and by that I mean temporary or short term shelter options, whether indoors, outdoor managed camps, or shelter villages. We have dramatically expanded our shelter system over the past several years, and we need to continue to make some strategic investments in shelter expansion.  Specifically, we should focus on filling gaps in our current system: adding options that serve particular communities, such as LGBTQ and BIPOC communities; ensuring geographic distribution (such as with the Arbor Lodge shelter in North Portland, currently in development); and providing other options that aren't now available. I have long advocated, for example, for some managed sites for safe parking for people living in their vehicles.

In addition, I see a short-term, COVID-created need for a limited number of additional shelter options, beyond those strategic investments, to address the COVID impacts that have led to the proliferation of large encampments. That’s why I have supported the City of Portland’s effort to use federal ARPA funding to create some additional managed outdoor shelters (referred to by the City as “safe rest villages”). 

Finally, I believe it’s essential that we address immediate needs for hygiene, medical care, and safety. This means greater and immediate investment in regular trash collection, toilets, and handwashing facilities, as well as a way to address physical safety concerns -- law enforcement if necessary to address violent crime; or a Portland Street Response or behavioral health outreach team to de-escalate behavioral health-related situations. The funding I secured in the County’s FY 22 budget focused on just such immediate needs: culturally specific peer outreach workers to help navigate people to shelter; and mobile showers.

None of these strategies will result in an immediate change in what we're seeing on the streets: but there is no strategy that will. This is a crisis that has taken a very long time to develop, and it will take time to unwind. Anyone who suggests otherwise is not thinking clearly.

I understand the concern and frustration people feel about homelessness, and the feeling that nothing is being done. (That’s not true - a great deal is being done - but we in government need to do a much, much better job of communicating it.) But I believe it would be dangerous to allow that frustration to drive a pivot to short-term solutions. And by that I’m referring to the push -- being led by the group People For Portland, among others -- to dramatically expand our emergency shelter network by creating sanctioned campsites throughout the city, and then to compel people to move to those sites.

The logistical and other barriers to such an approach are evident in the process, so far, of development of the City’s “safe rest villages”. Six were projected to be up and running by the end of the year. Last week, locations were announced for two of these.  While proponents of sanctioned outdoor camps argue that there are lots of available and appropriate spaces, it is simply not true. And siting these encampments is just the first hurdle: we would also need to find organizations to manage them, at a time when our shelter operators are absolutely maxed out. Finally, the cost does not pencil out. The “safe rest villages” are projected to shelter an average of 40 people per site, for a total of approximately 240 if all six are developed, at a cost of between $16 and $20 million. While I support the use of ARP funding for a limited number of villages, a significant expansion would not be an effective use of our ongoing local funds.

The strategy of dramatically expanding our shelter system is being pitched as faster, cheaper, and more effective. It would be none of those things. And it would significantly set back our efforts to actually house people -- which is what we must do if we are to solve this problem. 

And actually housing people is what we are beginning to do with the revenue from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure, approved in May 2020, which has just started to come in: here is a summary of the work underway. Among other things, the Joint Office of Homeless Services anticipates housing an additional 1,300 people within the next year using that funding.

In summary, this is what I believe we need to do:

  • Keep our focus on moving people into housing; 
     
  • Act strategically to fill gaps in our shelter network; 
     
  • Create some additional shelter to address COVID impacts; and
     
  • Meet immediate needs for hygiene, trash pickup, and safety.

In the bigger picture, the real solution is a massive federal investment in affordable housing. That is what will ultimately ensure that houselessness is rare, brief, and nonrecurring.

Community Safety

Gun violence is taking lives, and it’s traumatizing communities. Our residents need and deserve a response that is clear, focused, and comprehensive: one that combines short and longer-term approaches, and has jurisdictions and agencies working in close collaboration. 

In our FY 22 budget, the Board made significant investments in addressing gun violence. As appropriate to our role as the social safety net and as the local public health authority, our investments focus on prevention and intervention: on addressing root causes of violence, providing mental health and other services to people experiencing violence, and supporting people exiting the criminal legal system to make sure that they safely re-enter the community.

I have personally been working with organizations in the Cully neighborhood to develop strategies to improve community safety. I convened a series of meetings with them earlier this year, and a key theme that emerged was the need to rebuild community relationships and repair the social fabric that was already under stress from displacement, poverty, and racism, and has been further torn by the impacts of COVID. Building on this work, I secured funding for a demonstration project that will create place-based community safety coalitions in three neighborhoods (one of which will be Cully): coalitions comprised of residents, service providers, government agencies, and other key stakeholders to develop and sustain ways in which residents themselves can come together to advocate for and implement the programs and strategies they believe will build safety in their neighborhoods. I’m excited to be partnering with our Health Department and my colleagues Commissioner Vega Pederson and Commissioner Stegmann to move this project forward. 

These strategies, however, will not necessarily have an immediate impact; and in the meantime, gun violence continues to spike. Families are losing loved ones, and the impacted neighborhoods and communities are living in fear. And, as we know, communities of color are disproportionately impacted - Black and Latino communities in particular. As with houselessness, we do need additional short-term approaches that might help quell this spike in violence.To that end, the Board of Commissioners last week approved $1.05 million in ARPA funding for additional resources in the District Attorney’s office to investigate and prosecute homicides. DA Mike Schmidt has developed a dashboard that clearly shows the dramatic increase in homicide prosecutions his office has undertaken over the past year -- 285 so far in 2021, compared to 152  in all of 2019. Prosecution of these crimes is only one part of the necessary response, but I believe additional resources to investigate gun violence will help mitigate it, by removing from the streets people who present a true threat to safety; and by removing from the streets the guns, usually illegally acquired, that are instrumental in this spike in violence.

As with houselessness, community safety depends on a mix of approaches. It also depends on close collaboration among the responsible jurisdictions and agencies, and this is an area where we can continue to improve and where I will focus. 

Wood smoke Workgroup

Like many of you, I’ve always enjoyed gathering around a wood fire on a cold evening. Since coming into office, though, I have learned just how harmful wood smoke is to our healthOne old inefficient wood stove emits as much air pollution as 5 old diesel trucks. Our air is affected both by recreational wood burning - like those lovely fire pits - and by the use of wood as a heat source, usually in households that cannot afford alternatives.

For the past few months, I have been working with Commissioner Vega Pederson to convene a workgroup that’s developing strategies and policies to continue the work of reducing wood smoke pollution. We’ll share more as we move along in the process of creating that policy framework. I also advocated with Senator Michael Dembrow for ARPA funds to be used to swap polluting wood stoves for cleaner heat sources, like electric heat pumps -- and was very excited to learn just yesterday that he was able to secure $500,000 in funding for this purpose. I very much appreciate his work on this and am looking forward to putting these funds to use. 

In the Community

It has felt great to be able to attend outdoor gatherings again, and I had several opportunities this past month. I marched in solidarity with striking Nabisco workers in North Portland - workers who successfully pushed for better wages and hours in their new contract; celebrated the construction of a new, arts-focused affordable housing project for people with disabilities in the Hollywood neighborhood; and welcomed immigrants and refugees at the opening ceremony for the City of Portland’s Welcoming Week. Each event showed what is possible when we unite around a common purpose; and each reminded me why I do this work.

With gratitude,

Susheela

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