For years, our region has been strained by a housing affordability crisis that has resulted in many of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. When rents and housing costs are too expensive, thousands of people struggle to stay in their homes — and those who do lose their housing have a harder time regaining it.
Simply put: As housing becomes less affordable, as has happened in Multnomah County for years, homelessness increases.
That rising inflow into homelessness, driven by the market, perpetuates our community’s crisis. And that inflow overshadows the profound successes shared by the thousands of people helped back into housing, year after year, by the Joint Office of Homeless Services and its contracted provider partners.
Recent research continues to build evidence for the link between affordability and homelessness. Yes, factors including substance use, behavioral health disorders, and enforcement are much-discussed as visible forces on our streets. But across the country, nothing else correlates as closely to a community’s rate of homelessness as much as housing costs.
In Multnomah County’s most recent Point in Time Count, more than 5,200 people on one night were counted in shelters, transitional housing or on the street or sleeping in a car — and that’s just one night, leaving out the thousands of other people who become homeless over the rest of the year, or who were staying temporarily with friends or family and weren’t included in the federal count. More than 3,000 people were counted without shelter, a number that’s up 50% since 2019.
Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2016, only six new homes were constructed for every 10 new households in Multnomah County. That gap is even wider for homes that are actually affordable. As a result, the supply of housing has not kept up with demand, leading to rent increases.
Today, the federal government’s fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in our region is over $1,600 a month, up more than 40% in the past five years. Meanwhile, a disability check from the federal government pays just under $800 a month. Roughly 20 years ago, a disability check would have been enough to cover rent in Portland.
Given the high cost of housing, recent local studies have estimated 56,000 households in the Portland region are housing insecure on any given night and on the verge of homelessness. More than half of all renter households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% percent of their income on housing.
As a result, many households are forced to make impossible choices between paying for food, clothing, childcare, and other essential needs. An unexpected financial emergency — such as a car repair or medical bills — is often enough to force them into homelessness.
The tenuous positions that the challenges of our local housing market puts people in are particularly pronounced for our neighbors living on fixed incomes or with a disabling condition. In Multnomah County, more than 21,000 people rely on federal disability checks — enough only to afford just half the cost of the average one-bedroom apartment. With an estimated deficit of nearly 98,000 homes affordable for extremely low-income renters across Oregon, households with fixed incomes and other low-income households often struggle to find a stable place to live.
Homelessness affects thousands in our community, including single adults, couples, families with children, and senior citizens. Although homelessness can happen to anyone, it disproportionately impacts communities of color due to decades of systemic barriers to economic opportunities and housing discrimination. Because of discrimination and housing instability, members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community are also over-represented in the population of people experiencing homelessness. Those factors compound the harm caused by the lack of affordable housing.
Without a safe and permanent home, many of our unhoused neighbors lack the support and stability they need to rebuild their lives. However, homelessness is preventable and solvable.
In 2014, our community took the first among a growing set of crucial steps to address our . The City of Portland, Multnomah County, Home Forward and the City of Gresham joined with others to invest in A Home for Everyone, our region’s first truly comprehensive strategy for addressing homelessness.
This led to the creation of the Joint Office of Homeless Services in 2016, with the objective of helping more people back into housing while keeping more neighbors from losing their homes in the first place. The Joint Office funds housing assistance, shelter, street outreach, behavioral health services and hygiene programs. Throughout all of that work, the Joint Office has also committed to confronting and reducing racial disparities.
Now, on any given night, more than 12,000 people are supported in their housing through the Joint Office and its partners, support through rent assistance and other services that has either ended homelessness for thousands of people or prevented them from falling into it in the first place.
One analyst, ECONorthwest, concluded in 2018 that our region’s homelessness crisis would be much worse than it is – based on income disparities, vacancy rates and housing costs — if it hadn't been for the investments made by the Joint Office.
From July 2021 to June 2022, 30,750 people were enrolled in homelessness prevention programs, including rental assistance and legal assistance to prevent eviction.
Thousands more people every year also now experience the basic safety of emergency shelter since the office launched. We have more than doubled our community’s supply of publicly funded year-round shelter beds since the Joint Office began.
Find more information on the work of the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Supportive Housing Services.