Framework for a Coordinated Alternative Shelter Ecosystem
“A shelter is a basic architectural structure that provides protection from the local environment. Having a place of shelter, of safety and of retreat, is commonly considered a fundamental physiological human need, the foundation from which to develop higher human motivations.”
Adopted from a variety of sources.
The most pressing issue facing Multnomah County is the public health, safety and humanitarian crisis of people living and dying, unsheltered, on our streets. We do not have an accurate count of how many people are living outside or have a breakdown of what their needs are, but we do know that:
- There are thousands of people living outside;
- They are living in squalor, in unhealthy, unsafe and inhumane conditions;
- They are dying in ever-increasing numbers;
- There is a prevalence of serious behavioral health issues, particularly serious mental illness and/or methamphetamine and/or opioid use; and
- Many people living outside desperately want to live in better conditions, but for a variety of reasons are unable to live in traditional indoor shelter, and in the best case scenario, the thousands of housing units it would take to house them will not be available for years.
People living outside, business owners, direct service providers, and other community members are speaking with a unified voice about what they would like to see, and we have a unique opportunity to respond to this crisis in a way that meets shared goals.
- Urgently reduce harm to unhoused individuals and the community at large in a way that meets and improves people’s health, safety, and fundamental human needs;
- Save lives; and
- Establish a coordinated system so that relationships can be established and services provided in a way that optimizes people’s pathways to health and housing.
We can meaningfully move toward the goals described above by adding three essential components to our existing system of shelters to form an ecosystem:
- A new and broadly distributed type of low impact living space with a very small footprint (“microsite”). Each site will have about 10 living units with basic amenities (toilet, handwashing, laundry, showers, trash collection), easily built and replicable, distributed equitably throughout the City/County.
- Safe parking sites. Various sizes, with basic amenities, distributed throughout the City/County.
- Coordination and centralization. Outreach workers need to know where to consistently find people to establish relationships and get them the housing, behavioral health and case management services they need.
Why is this proposal worth investing in?:
- This is what many people living outside would prefer.
- Given the choice, many people would prefer living outside to living in an indoor shelter for a variety of reasons.
- Given the choice, many people would prefer living outside with amenities, with community, with pets, with security for belongings, to living outside in squalor with the constant threat of being swept, of having belongings taken, without a toilet, a place to wash their hands, or a place to rest.
- Giving people the option they would prefer, that can be offered more quickly and cheaply than other alternatives, is a win-win.
- Ability to establish relationships reliably over time. Virtually all outreach workers cite relationship as the crucial ingredient that helps people traverse the path to permanent housing. Having a network of established villages and shelters can allow for the coordination necessary to create relationships that can be sustained over time.
- Coordination. Outreach workers do an amazing job of connecting with people and providing services, but the systems they work in are not coordinated and this creates barriers to the effectiveness of outreach as a whole. This is true from basic case management and getting someone an ID to providing complex behavioral health support to job training. Whatever services are being offered, the providers need to know where people can be found.
- Lays the groundwork for success in permanent housing. Currently, many people living outside could not move directly into housing even if it was available. Given that housing demand exceeds supply, and it will take years to get the services needed for people to be successful in housing if they were placed, it makes sense to provide readily available housing to those who want it and will likely be successful in sustaining it. In the meantime, build relationships and get things in order so that by the time housing is available, people living outside are ready to transition. This includes things like getting an ID, accessing social security and disability benefits, getting job training, accessing behavioral health services, etc. It can also provide opportunities that enhance wellness, such as art and music.
- Equitably distributed throughout the City/County. The impacts of unsheltered homelessness are being experienced throughout the City and County. Because most shelters are relatively large and not distributed equally in various neighborhoods, neighbors can feel singled out or that they are getting the short end of the stick if a shelter is sited in their neighborhood. If sites are much smaller, but scattered equitably throughout the city, people are less impacted because there is a smaller footprint, and people can also feel that they are part of something larger, engendering more sense of community and support for unhoused neighbors.
- Enhanced safety. Smaller sites can be better monitored, particularly by community and peers. If safety issues are identified, they can be addressed much more effectively than as the situation currently stands with large encampments sprawled over city blocks with no consistent point of accountability.
- Scale. Right now we add tens to hundreds of shelter beds to our system, when in reality we need thousands of places for people to safely live. The model I’ve proposed can add thousands in a rapid and distributed way that minimizes broader community impact while meeting the scope of need. For example, having one of these small footprint minimal impact sites in every neighborhood in Portland would shelter 1,000 people. This might not be the ultimate distribution, but it illustrates the opportunity for scalability.
- Improved environmental impact. Currently, the environmental impact of unsheltered houselessness is not being measured, and it should be. But we know the impact is tremendous, from biowaste to needles to burned out tents and plastic tarps to soiled clothing and sleeping bags and tons of other material that cannot be reused and is simply left outside. With small low impact sites, sleeping structures can be constructed from environmentally sustainable materials, such as cross-laminated timber, and people will have access to showers and laundry and toilets and trash collection so their belongings do not have to be discarded, and trash and rats and biowaste do not build up.
Nuts and Bolts:
Phase 1 (approximately 1-3 months)
- Dedicate staff capacity in JOHS to develop and oversee alternative shelter network strategy and implementation:
The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) will employ dedicated staff to quickly develop and implement this plan as part of a more expansive portfolio of alternative shelters and aligned services. This can potentially be resourced through American Rescue Plan funding, Supportive Housing Services Measure funds, and/or other funding streams dedicated through JOHS, Public Health, or other County departments.
- Engage with the Alternative Shelter Collaborative, City, County, local businesses, faith organizations and neighbors to identify available land and facilities:
The City has already identified 70 sites in furtherance of efforts to build Safe Rest Villages (SRVs). Though the sites were not necessarily amenable to SRVs, they actually could be appropriate if revisited looking through a microsite lens. We needn’t look for large "perfect" sites that meet detailed requirements in terms of grade, access to water, electricity, etc. Rather, sites can be rustic, small and essentially function like campgrounds.
Multnomah County should have a list of similar available sites, which could be evaluated through the lens of what microsites would need. Faith and other organizations, including businesses, can take on small sites in their parking lots or elsewhere, and we have seen interest and desire of organizations to take on this kind of opportunity if they are provided with the support they need.
There are a lot more options when looking for really small sites that don't need electricity hookup etc. than when looking for large sites that have myriad restrictions and potential challenges.
- What would be included in sites: A “menu” of amenities, with a baseline:
There are a number of versatile structures that can serve as alternative shelter units that can be erected rapidly, and we have seen a variety of these used locally and across the country. They range from insulated durable four season tents that can withstand blizzards to tiny homes constructed from cross-laminated timber and a number of structures in between.
All shelter sites would require basic amenities, including access to toilets, shower and laundry services (which could be mobile), handwashing/hygiene stations and regular garbage collection/recycling/sharps pickup.
Dedicated culturally specific, recovery, low barrier, etc. sites:
Under the general framework there will be a focus on providing a baseline of supports for people so that harm, suffering, and trauma are reduced for as many people as possible and health, safety and dignity are improved.
In addition, based on community input from people who will be living at the sites and dedicated community based organizations who work on the front line with people experiencing unsheltered houselessness, sites can be developed that are dedicated to community-based and cultural needs. Examples include Laquida Lanford’s AfroVillages, Future Generations Collaborative’s Barbie’s Village for a Native-specific transitional community, and others.
Phase 2 (approximately 2-5 months):
- Select sites:
Consider accessibility to transportation and services, proximity to other structures, geographical distribution, and coordination with other sites. As noted, sites may accommodate a range of opportunities, including sites for substance use recovery, culturally specific sites, safe parking sites with services.
- Reach out to neighborhoods:
Regular engagement and connection with potential neighbors is crucial. Connect with neighbors and other community members early and often about potential site development. Provide information and answer questions. There should ideally be a staff member dedicated to ongoing community engagement.
- Develop models for site support, with focus on peers:
Some sites might need more structured/full time staff, others might just need people who check in over the course of a week to ensure there are no specific needs or safety issues. At a baseline, services will ensure security, functioning of hygiene, toilets and showers, and trash pickup. This is where we should start, and add services as people become safer and feel more secure.
The people who best understand the needs of people living unsheltered are those who have lived the experience themselves, and so peers should be employed whenever possible. Engage with organizations on the front lines such as Trash for Peace, Gather : Make : Shelter, Cultivate Initiatives, Hygiene4All, Equi Institute, Street Roots, Central Eastside Enhanced Service District, etc.
- Determine additional services that might be needed:
Site types will vary, as will service needs. Services can include behavioral and physical health services, peer support, employment and housing assistance, skills development, case management, and others. Services can be embedded on site, but more likely will be provided through mobile outreach support.
Phase 3 (approximately 4-8 months):
- Reach out to potential residents:
Share information about sites directly with unsheltered residents through trusted community partners. Answer questions and spend time engaging.
- Set up sites:
A network of volunteers will set up sites around the County, coordinated and overseen by paid and/or volunteer staff.
- Facilitate and support move-in:
Provide effective assistance to people in moving themselves, their belongings, their pets, etc. to places where they can sleep without fear of being uprooted, and where they have access to a safe and healthy place to live with dignity until they can access transitional or permanent housing.
Funding and staffing requirements:
Estimated staffing in JOHS: 2-3 FTE to coordinate and implement this plan including but not limited to: dedicated program management; communications, outreach and engagement; contract oversight; volunteer management; data tracking and analysis; and other functions. These positions may be shared across other portfolios of work in the JOHS, or even Public Health, but there should be a minimum of one full time employee dedicated to oversight and management of this work.
Proposed implementation cost: A 10 site pilot will depend on the specific structures and services involved. Experience from sites that have been constructed demonstrate that basic sites can be built for approximately $75,000-$125,000. Adding fundamental amenities such as trash collection, showers and laundry, upkeep of toilets and hygiene stations, peer support, etc, can add $35,000-$50,000/year.
Proposed funding source(s): This work would ideally be funded initially through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) resources, as it falls squarely within the goals of this funding, and the infrastructure development lends itself to one time only spending. After one year of implementation, the impact of the program should be reassessed, which will inform continuation/adjustment of the approach.
This Framework is meant to address a very limited need and is only one small - but crucial - part of a holistic ecosystem:
This Framework must be considered in the context of three overarching strategies to address homelessness: Prevention, Safety/Shelter On/Off the Streets, and Permanent Housing. This framework is intended to be a small piece of a very large puzzle, operating at the crucial intersection of public health and houselessness, falling primarily under the bucket of Safety/Shelter On/Off the Streets, while also serving as a first step in a healthy pathway to housing when housing is not yet available.
A short-term action-oriented approach is essential to address the urgent public health and safety crisis of people living unsheltered on our streets and also the broader community. But how we take urgent action matters. The current approach of sweeping human beings is unconscionable. It is also doomed to failure because it doesn’t address people’s actual needs, and it costs millions of dollars without addressing the underlying issues leading people to sleep outside.
The model I have proposed could be implemented within weeks. It will improve people’s health, safety and dignity, and can serve as a basis for understanding and ultimately meeting their longer term housing and service needs. It can serve as the first step in a holistic pathway to health, safety, dignity, housing and healing.
This proposed framework should be considered in the context of the following Guiding Principles:
Equity - Be guided by, include, and appropriately compensate people with lived experience throughout the process, with intentional focus on people who have been historically marginalized, excluded and disproportionately impacted by houselessness, including Black, Indigenous and other People of Color, those who are LGBTQ+, people with a history of behavioral health issues and/or physical disability, elders, and others.
Harm reduction - Be trauma-informed; focus on improvements in health and safety; and promote individual dignity.
Facilitation and support - Ensure people have dedicated outreach in moving themselves, their belongings and their pets in a supportive and trauma-informed way.
Choice and self-determination - Provide an array of options rather than one size fits all - people who are houseless are not a monolithic group, and individuals have different needs at different times.
Community - Many encampments have established communities. Community is often as essential to people as shelter. Maintain existing communities and facilitate the creation of community whenever possible.
Coordination and systems approach - Each site can reduce harm and improve the health, safety and dignity of individuals. But the real impact is in collective systems transformation and the ability to meaningfully identify and serve people and facilitate transition to supportive housing and other permanent housing. This can only occur through a coordinated and intentional network.
Urgency - People living outside are subject to potential violence, lack of sanitary and healthy conditions, and risk of harm every day. The conditions truly constitute a humanitarian crisis, and should be treated as such.
Please note that this document - though informed by listening sessions, dedicated forums, and conversations with many individuals throughout the community, including people with lived experience of being houseless, advocates, and other community members - is only a draft. I welcome your questions, suggestions, critique, and feedback