Homelessness. We often refer to this challenge as though it were a natural disaster, a singular force beyond our control. In a 2017 survey, 54 percent of Portlanders considered homelessness intractable.
While there's no doubt that homelessness is a complex and urgent problem, we can't fully address it until we step back to recognize why it's happening in the first place.
A new report produced by ECONorthwest and commissioned by the Oregon Community Foundation sheds light on the subject, finding that the region's rapid growth in homelessness is largely the result of two overlapping crises.
The first is a population of roughly 2,000 Oregonians who have difficulty finding stable housing due to difficult personal circumstances like mental health challenges, chronic illness, physical disabilities, and substance abuse.
The second is an inadequate supply of housing that has pushed tens of thousands of Oregonians into financial hardship and, increasingly, out of their homes.
The report's authors recognize that the first crisis, while a massive challenge, has become well understood and is being addressed by capable local service providers who need additional support and funding so they can expand work the report calls a "success" and "nation-leading."
As we take on chronic homelessness, it's clear that commitment, collaboration and resources come together to produce results. In 2017, Portland and Multnomah County leaders committed to creating 2,000 units of supportive housing by 2028. Less than a year later, 517 new units have already opened or are in development, marking significant progress toward that goal. Supportive housing, which couples deeply affordable rents with counseling and mental health treatment, is an extremely effective approach to reducing chronic homelessness.
Until now, much of what we knew about the association between the housing market and homelessness came from service providers hearing from clients about how rising rents resulted in the loss of their homes.
Now, we have data to back up that narrative. ECONorthwest projects that rent increases, without new housing to slow them down, could push the region's homeless population from 6,597 in 2017 to nearly 8,300 in 2022.
The situation is dire. Across our region, 56,000 households are at risk of falling into homelessness on any given night.
For these families, an emergency expense, like a car repair or medical bill, can make the difference between a roof over their heads or the street.
To slow the growth of homelessness in Oregon, and ultimately reduce the number of people living on our streets, it's critical that we find ways to expand the supply of housing and limit rent inflation.
As our population continues to grow, we'll need more housing options at all income levels. Some of this can be done through regulatory changes that encourage the private sector to build more housing. But the remainder will require increased funding for subsidized affordable housing.
In November, the region took a huge step forward by approving a housing bond that will help to build safe, permanently affordable housing for as many as 12,000 low-income families.
The regional bond comes on the heels of the City of Portland's housing bond, which is on track to create 1,300 permanently affordable housing units by 2023.
Increasing the supply of housing will take years. But for thousands, the crisis is happening now. That's why we need protections for tenants to ensure that families are not removed from their homes through no-cause evictions or massive rent hikes.
Like any complex problem, homelessness requires a variety of solutions.
We need bonds for subsidized housing, and we need more housing overall. We need more funding for supportive housing.
We need to focus on inequities in our economic structures that limit opportunities for our neighbors and cause people to fall through the cracks.
We need reasonable policies to protect those vulnerable from losing their housing. And, perhaps most of all, we need a collaborative approach that recognizes the value that government agencies, nonprofits, foundations and businesses bring to table.
Ashley Henry is the Chief Collaboration Officer of Business For A Better
Portland. She can be reached at: