Multnomah County needs to stop trying to govern by press release and get to work. The plan released today is nothing new; it’s a recycled version of three decades worth of similar efforts, all of which have left Portland worse off than before. 


Unfortunately, even the most basic reading of the new Homelessness Response System Action Plan highlights the terminal vagueness, recycled wording, and superficial pledges of collaboration that have characterized every plan since Mayor Bud Clark released Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness: The Portland Model in 1988. The only difference here is that this plan is even more vague, inconsistent and misleading than prior versions. 


The public might not be aware of Portland and Multnomah County’s history of plans to end homelessness, but they’re fairly easy to summarize because they all say basically the same thing: “Homelessness is complicated. We need to address it in new ways and focus on prevention, outreach, shelter, and housing. We need to acknowledge there is no easy fix and we can’t do it alone. We need unprecedented cross-government and cross-sector collaboration and coordination. We need data, accountability, and a bunch of committees. And we need to build on the excellent work that has come before.” 


None of this is earth-shattering. Yet despite the City and County investing billions of dollars into these plans, all of them have failed. 


Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it, and right now we are setting ourselves up for yet another failure, wasting even more time, at record cost. 


Releasing this plan just doesn’t make sense. Unless there is a motivation for creating and publicizing this new version of the same old plan that is different from the very human problem of wanting to solve homelessness. 


The problem this plan can address is political. Political leaders needing a distraction from their failure to solve the biggest issue voters care about. Viewed through this lens, a PR campaign with a supposedly new plan to address homelessness makes complete sense. 


Because in what other world would you roll out a fourth iteration of a plan that has repeatedly failed? Would you claim you are building on previous successes and hope that the public doesn’t notice that you’re claiming a 26% placement rate from shelter is a success? Promise to house or shelter 2700 people in less than two years when you couldn’t manage even a fraction of that number and instead things have gotten worse?


At best this plan is irrelevant. At worst this plan is trying to distract the public and buy more time we don’t have. It allows local elected leaders to once again pretend like we’re doing something rather than actually DO something. It’s political theater. 


I desperately wanted to find hope in the new plan, and I don’t think I was alone. Portlanders are optimistic. They care about their community. They know that we can move forward. But this plan doesn’t offer hope. Instead, it tries to capitalize on the public’s desperation for collaboration and progress by marketing a recycled product and hoping the public won’t notice. 


If you were given the keys to a new car, and told ¼ of the time it’ll get you home, but ¾ of the time you will end up dead, would you turn the key?  That’s what the Homelessness Response System Action Plan is asking us to accept, and I don’t.  With the money and time we are wasting, we owe our homeless neighbors more than a 26% chance of changing their life trajectory.  


I want to collaborate, but I can’t be complicit. It’s time for the County to admit we are failing and need a new approach, not just attempt to recycle decades of failure and call it progress.