Leadership from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the agency at the federal level whose sole focus is solving homelessness nationwide, visited Portland on March 21, 2023, to tour facilities, meet key stakeholders, learn about challenges, and see firsthand some of the region’s innovative solutions to homelessness.
Jeff Olivet, the executive director of USICH, said that the agency serves as “connective tissue” for the many government bodies and organizations that are working to solve homelessness across the country. A regular part of his role is traveling the country to see what the challenges are like on the ground, and connecting and aligning the work being done in different areas of the nation.
Among the lessons revealed in the day-long visit: people want to move into housing, and many people are working hard to get them inside. But the frank lack of available housing and behavioral healthcare in the Portland region makes progress challenging.
“You are in a hard part of the world to do this work,’’ Olivet told providers and area leaders. “The housing market is working against what you’re trying to do.’’
Both Olivet and Miller highlighted that Portland and Multnomah County lead the nation in providing innovative solutions to homelessness.
“Portland is a leader nationally. You have some of the top programs, top housing developers. The challenge is taking it up to scale,” Miller said.
The trip comes on the heels of the December 2022 release of “All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness”, the agency’s “roadmap’’ to reduce homelessness 25% by 2025. The initiative encourages state and local governments to use the plan as a blueprint for developing their own strategic plans and for setting their own ambitious goals for 2025.
Olivet noted that the federal government’s approach to solving homelessness mirrors the work of the Joint Office of Homeless Services and local providers. The plan’s focus on the evidence-based model of housing-first, built on a foundation of equity, mirrors the work being done at the local level.
“The work you’re doing here and work at the federal level is very aligned in terms of values,” Olivet said.
To get a full picture of the current state of homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County, Olivet and Miller were on the ground from 8:30 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. on March 21, visiting seven locations and meeting people who work in all levels of homeless and housing services.
8:30 a.m.: Meeting with street outreach workers at Central City Concern’s Old Town Recovery Center
The first stop of the day was a meeting with street outreach workers at Central City Concern’s Old Town Recovery Center, which offers comprehensive mental health and addiction services to anyone who needs them, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.
“We are interested in what’s going on on the ground,” Miller said near the start of the meeting. “What are the issues? What are the barriers for getting into housing? What are the obstacles to coordinating outreach? What’s the availability to move people into permanent housing?”
The outreach workers explained that too often, housing and other needed services aren’t available for the clients they’re serving.
Jeff Woodward from the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon said “there’s a big funnel of people, but what we can funnel them into is really narrow.”
The Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, Central City Concern and Transition Projects, with funding from the Joint Office, collaborate on Navigation Teams that work intensively with high-impact camps to offer housing, shelter and services like helping people access benefits, sign up for insurance or take care of paperwork.
Woodward said that facilities like the Hooper Detox Stabilization Center and the Unity Center for Behavioral Health rarely have available beds – and that there is never enough affordable housing to offer the people served by the Navigation Teams.
Without places to connect clients to more intensive services and housing, outreach workers said their ability to help people is limited. “Without those handoffs, all we’re really providing is peer support and harm reduction,” Woodward said.
“No one out there is not ready for change,” Drew Grabham, Central City Concern’s director of outreach, said of people living outside. “Often, it’s the system that’s not ready for them.”
9:30 a.m.: Street outreach at the Peninsula Crossing Trail
The group reconvened in North Portland at the large encampment of tents on the Peninsula Crossing Trail. Outreach workers loaded up a cart with tarps, tents, water bottles, blankets, hand warmers, wet wipes and hand sanitizer — survival gear that supports people who live outside.
The government representatives joined outreach workers in handing out gear, while talking with outreach workers and people experiencing homelessness about their experiences.
One person, D., stood outside his tent to talk with the federal representatives, his dog at his side. D. shared how his dog has helped him, but at the same time explained that having a dog can be a barrier to entering shelter. Shelters funded by the Joint Office of Homeless Services generally allow pets, but have thresholds regarding how the animals behave and are handled by their owners.
“One time, I had a heart attack. He pulled me by my shirt into the tent and then sat with his chest on my chest and was kind of purring,” D. said of his dog. “I don’t know how he did it, but I came back and found him there, licking my face and loving me. And the second time, he pulled me from a car wreck.”
“This dog is everything to me. I can’t go into a shelter with him, but I won’t be separated from him.”
One outreach team member helped a person fill out necessary paperwork to get an ID card. It’s a common service provided by street outreach workers because the ID cards of people living unsheltered are frequently stolen or lost.
“We try to get individuals what we call ‘document ready,’” said Dave Crosby, head of Central City Concern’s Navigation Team. “Making sure they have a birth certificate, social security card, verification of disability, verification of income, verification of homelessness.” The workers also conduct the assessments needed to get them into the Coordinated Access system — the first step to connecting people to transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.
But the outreach workers continued to emphasize that the life-saving services they’re delivering aren’t enough. While helping people survive in their current situation, they aren’t able to match the need for housing and more intensive services.
10 a.m. Information session at Peninsula Crossing Trail Safe Rest Village
Representatives from the City of Portland shared how Safe Rest Villages utilize City-owned property, with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and technical support from the Joint Office of Homeless Services, to provide an alternative to traditional congregate shelter.
Additionally, representatives from Urban Alchemy, the nonprofit identified to oversee Mayor Ted Wheeler’s first Temporary Alternative Shelter Site, spoke about their approach and the importance of low-barrier shelter.
“We are rebuilding public housing, through tents and tiny homes,” said Lena Miller, Urban Alchemy’s executive director. “We are providing some form of privacy with independence.”
11 a.m.: Tour of St. Johns Village
The group then received a tour at St. Johns Village, a tiny home alternative shelter that opened in 2021, operated by nonprofit Do Good Multnomah with funding from the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Matthew Duenas, the village’s program manager, says the shelter helps people prepare for permanent housing after being homeless. “We offer a physical transition, along with a mental and emotional transition,” Matthew said. “It’s less institutionalized than a lot of shelters, and more like home.”
When asked by federal representatives about lessons learned from developing an alternative shelter like St. Johns Village, the staff said that an early investment in infrastructure and fostering community is key to success — and key to lower costs down the line. It’s because of the community that the village only needs to be staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, staff said.
“Investing early on in those community spaces made a huge impact,” said Daniel Hovanas, Do Good Multnomah’s chief operating officer. “Other villages are much more expensive in their operations because they need 24-hour staffing.”
1:45 p.m.: Tour of Hattie Redmond Apartments
The apartments were developed by Home Forward with services provided by the Urban League of Portland, and are intended to serve people experiencing homelessness who requested culturally specific services for African Americans.
Representatives from Home Forward and the Urban League highlighted the partnership between the organizations as being crucial to the project, with Home Forward offering its expertise in affordable housing development and Urban League providing a culturally specific perspective in the creation of the building.
The services are designed to support people who have historically been underserved by housing opportunities.
In addition to case management, “we’re able to have furniture provided for them, food boxes, games,” said Leor Beverly, community manager for the apartments. “We want to be a one-stop shop.”
2:30 p.m.: Tour of Kenton Women’s Village
The village offers a similar focus on community and dignity as alternative shelters in Portland. While residents are held to certain expectations while staying at the village, there’s also a lot of freedom.
“Every person who comes into the village is expected to do chores, meet with their case manager, and attend village meetings on Mondays,” said Courtney Hamilton, the manager of homeless services for Catholic Charities. Beyond that, Hamilton said the participants are mostly able to define their time, with the space to access services supporting their transition back to housing.
3:30 p.m.: Provider roundtable at Renaissance Commons
To close out the day, the USICH representatives met with about 20 homeless and housing service providers for a roundtable discussion. The meeting, which took place in a community room of Renaissance Commons, a 189-unit affordable housing complex in the Kenton neighborhood created by REACH Community Development Corporation, also included HUD staff and staffers for U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer.
The federal representatives asked providers to share examples of barriers or challenges they’re facing.
Several providers called out workforce shortages., Juliana Lukasik, senior director of communications and public affairs for Central City Concern, said finding behavioral health workers is her agency’s number one challenge. Oregon, she said, has a shortage of 39,000 behavioral health workers right now.
Olivet said that workforce shortages have been a challenge throughout his 30 years of working in homeless services, but he also acknowledged that the pandemic and the “Great Resignation” created even greater staff vacancies.
Multiple providers indicated that while the work they’re doing on the ground is important, greater systemic forces — namely, the region’s housing shortage — makes the work challenging. Julia Maria Delgado, the Urban League’s vice president, said that the federal government’s disinvestment in public housing decades ago is a huge contributor to the current crisis.
Bryan Guiney, director of HUD’s Portland field office, pointed out that Oregon’s population has grown by 10% between 2010-2020, gaining the equivalent of “another Clackamas County.” “We’re fighting against the tide,” Guiney said, highlighting that housing, along with social safety net services like child care, schools, and health care, hasn’t grown at the same pace as the population.
Olivet underscored the importance of building up the housing stock in order to prevent and reduce homelessness. “When I was born in 1971, there was a surplus of 300,000 affordable housing units in the U.S. Now, we have a deficit of 7.3 million affordable housing units,” Olivet said. “We know as housing stock goes down, homelessness goes up.”
Margaret Salazar, HUD’s regional administrator for the northwestern U.S., acknowledged the long-term federal disinvestment in housing, but highlighted “two incredible years of HUD budget investment” that is putting “dollars out the door.” HUD recently announced $315 million in funding nationwide to help solve unsheltered homelessness – including an $8.3 million grant to the Joint Office to fund permanent supportive housing.
Olivet provided a summary of the All In plan, which was developed by USICH with the collective thinking of 19 federal agencies that make up the USICH Council. The All In plan is focused on three foundational principles — equity, data and evidence, and collaboration — and three solutions — housing, crisis response, and prevention.
“We know what works. It’s not rocket science: housing combined with wraparound services,” Olivet said. But he also highlighted the importance of preventing homelessness in the first place. “It’s not enough to house all the people who are currently homeless, because that doesn’t turn off the faucet. We need upstream solutions.”
Olivet said that despite the challenges, he feels hopeful. “Traveling around the country, I feel a new sense of enthusiasm,” Olivet said. “We’re entering a new chapter.”
Olivet encouraged continued collaboration and alignment at the regional, state, and federal level — a principle also highlighted in the All In plan. “I’m convinced that if we can all align our efforts, good will come,” Olivet said.