January 15, 2020

Voters across the region agree that ending homelessness should be the top priority for local government. They even agree on how elected officials should go about it, according to new polling data that a coalition called HereTogether Oregon shared with the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

By wide margins, voters from Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties said they would back systemic changes around housing affordability along with even deeper investments in strategies that already help thousands of people avoid or leave homelessness every year — rent assistance paired with services such as addiction and mental health treatment.

Katrina Holland, right, HereTogether Oregon board member and director of Community Alliance of Tenants, speaks to the board at a briefing Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.
Almost half of respondents, 47 percent, said they favored service-focused solutions. An additional 41 percent wanted systemic changes aimed at overhauling the housing market and economy. 

And, at the same time, a scant number of voters — about 10 percent — supported “tough love” policies such as cuts to social services or legal crackdowns on people priced out of housing and trying to survive outside.

“Voters are quite educated on this issue,” said Cole Merkel, deputy director of HereTogether Oregon, made up of nonprofits, service providers, business groups and researchers, and supported by elected officials across the region and at all levels of local government. “Everyone has a very strong understanding of the causes of homelessness and the solutions to homelessness.”

HereTogether’s data came from a September survey of 900 likely voters — 300 of each of the three counties. The results accompanied a major announcement.

The coalition is working to qualify a citizen’s ballot measure in November 2020 that would raise $250 million to $300 million a year, across the tri-county region, to help people experiencing chronic homelessness. The group, after months of organizing, is just a few weeks from settling on a proposed funding mechanism and a spending framework.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said she looks forward to seeing how some of those questions are answered.

"I think this is amazing. I’m asking a lot of questions because I want it to be successful,” she said. “I’m supportive of it, and I’m really excited to hopefully see it come to fruition."

Chair Deborah Kafoury said she’s been part of the coalition since before it was called HereTogether Oregon.

She noted that local governments like Multnomah County and the City of Portland have spent record amounts from their general funds on homelessness and made a difference for thousands of people who otherwise would still be homeless.

Cole Merkel, left, HereTogether Oregon's deputy director, speaks to the board at a briefing Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services, for example, shelters thousands more people over the course of a year than the community was able to help in 2015. And the office and other government agencies are supporting more than 12,000 people in housing on any given night, double the number four years before. 

Though homelessness remains visible, studies from independent economics experts like ECONorthwest have said the crisis would be much worse if not for local government’s success. Doing more, scaling up what’s already working to help people, would make a bigger impact, Kafoury said.

“The housing crisis has created an unrelenting pipeline into homelessness for far too many of our neighbors across the region,” Chair Kafoury said. “To actually address homelessness, we have to make significant investments, and it has to be regionwide. And while we know what works, we also know that government’s general funds are limited.”

HereTogether, in fact, presented data that shows just how unrelenting that pipeline really is. More than 56,000 households across the region face homelessness on any given night because they spend so much of their incomes on housing.  

“As quickly as people are getting off the streets with the investments that we’re able to make, they're just as quickly falling into homelessness and out of the bottom of the housing market,” said Katrina Holland, director of Community Alliance of Tenants and a HereTogether board member. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support our neighbors."