Prevention and permanent housing needed along with shelters, housing experts tell Board

September 22, 2016

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services; Shannon Singleton, executive director of JOIN; Stacy Borke, Transition Projects Director of Housing Services

More than 9,000 people at risk of becoming homeless were able to stay in their homes last fiscal year, as a result of the efforts of the A Home for Everyone initiative and investments from Multnomah County. Another 4,600 people were helped back into permanent housing after spending time on the street or in shelters.

The disclosure came during a briefing to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on  A Home for Everyone’s Safety off the Streets Action Plan. A Home for Everyone is a community wide effort to house homeless Multnomah County residents.

The briefing doubled as a forum to discuss homeless shelters and, specifically, whether the unused, county-owned Wapato detention center should be converted into a shelter.

More than 2,000 people sleep on Multnomah County streets each night, Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, told the board. Hundreds more find refuge in shelters, cars or the homes of family members or friends.

“We have an enormous crisis in our community,” Jolin said. “We have thousands of families who are in housing today who are facing the prospect of becoming homeless.”

But Jolin cautioned the board against investing money only in emergency shelter, saying that doing so would chip away at funding for other plans aimed at reducing homelessness.

Increasing the number of available shelter beds is but one of three strategies to keep people off the street and is the third best option of the group, Jolin said.

Preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place and moving people who are currently homeless into permanent housing are preferable to opening additional shelters, he said. Both of those strategies, which require providing services like rent assistance and employment support, keep people in permanent housing and are less expensive than sheltering, Jolin said.

“Where we can do prevention, we want to do prevention. Where we can do placement, we want to do placement,” Jolin said. “And only when we don’t have either of those available to us for a household do we want to be talking about shelter.”

It costs about $8,000 per household to assist people in attaining permanent housing, compared with the $8,000 to $10,000 per year to provide a shelter bed, Jolin said.

In fiscal year 2016, the A Home for Everyone Initiative prevented 9,360 people from losing housing and helped 4,603 attain permanent housing. Some 6,644 people received access to emergency shelter in the year.

Six new shelters have or will have opened in 2016, doubling the number of publicly-funded shelter beds by 650 for a total of 1,240. Those include shelters for women, families, veterans, people with disabilities and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Despite those gains, street homelessness still is pervasive in Multnomah County. With the high visibility of people sleeping on the street has come calls to turn the unused Wapato jail into a temporary shelter for about 525 homeless people. The 155,000 square foot facility has not been used since it was built in 2004.

“It’s a viable place to pick up a huge amount of space to house people who are sleeping on the streets and in the winter time here, six months a year, this is what we need to help solve (homelessness).” said Ken Pierce, told the board during the public comment period. “The shelter aspect is one-third of (A Home for Everyone’s strategy). We can’t just say everybody in permanent housing.”

Commissioner Loretta Smith has encouraged her fellow commissioners to consider using the facility. 

Commissioners Jules Bailey and Loretta Smith and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury

“With this affordable housing crisis and homelessness,... I have suggested that we take a look at Wapato as a possible temporary shelter option. I still have not changed my mind on that,” Smith said. “Today is the first day of fall, we need someplace for people to go on a temporary basis.”

But critics of the jail’s use as a homeless shelter, including Kate Lore, pointed to its distance from wraparound  services, schools, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, jobs and a number of other resources people need and use everyday as reason to abandon the idea.

“Does it make sense that people have imagined taking one bad situation to remedy another? Absolutely. It would take people out of the elements and out of site and it would utilize an empty, expensive building,” Lore said. “But is it a good idea? No. Absolutely not. ...It just provides a means to gather up homeless persons and hide them away.”

A county assessment of the site also raised some potential challenges with any conversion. The property, which is zoned heavy industrial, would need a waiver or zoning change before it could house people. And, a homeless shelter would require the blessing of the Port of Portland, which sold the land to the county with a deed restriction that prohibits residential use, said Assistant County Attorney Jed Tomkins.

What’s more, it would cost about $953,000 to meet various requirements necessary to open the site as a shelter, a total that does not include the cost to operate it, said Henry Alaman, director of the Facilities and Property Management division.

Smith said she didn’t think the jail’s obstacles were insurmountable. She has asked for an itemized breakdown of the total cost to operate the Wapato facility.

“For me, I just want the bare bones numbers,” Smith said. “I don’t think it requires a whole lot.”

Commissioner Jules Bailey disagreed. He said the site had too many issues to overcome to be considered a viable option. Bailey said continued pursuit of the idea would derail the current efforts to reduce homelessness in Multnomah County.

“I would be very loathe to throw good taxpayer money after bad in continuing to investigate, investigate, investigate an option that doesn’t meet the needs that we have in our community and doesn’t meet the plan that we’ve laid out,” Bailey said. “What we know is that shelter doesn’t resolve homelessness. It’s a respite. It’s a pipeline into housing. And that housing resolves homelessness.”

The board did not take action on any issues related to housing and homelessness at the meeting.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury applauded the work of A Home for Everyone for the work it has done so far to reduce the number of county residents sleeping on the street.

“Homelessness is traumatic and painful. The fact that we don’t have the resources to end everyone’s homelessness tonight is painful, very personally painful to me,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said during the briefing. “But what we can do -- and what I’m proud that this board is doing -- is to invest the dollars we have in ways that we know will help as many people as possible.”