In July 1987, when I was 22, I left Ohio to move to Portland. My mom decided to fly with me to be absolutely certain I had a plan, which I did, but in retrospect it was not fully flushed out. I did have a job lined up, but that was it. Ultimately, I was very lucky; I had a cousin in town who told me to look at a Willamette Week, which I did, and I found a room in a house that I could afford on my minimum wage salary of $4.25 an hour.
I was completely annoyed that my mom came with me and did not appreciate at all the effort she made to be sure I was fine. Today I understand that family and community, and the safety nets they provide, can make an enormous difference for someone who is seeking housing or trying to build a life. My mom got me a futon, my grandfather got me a bike, I liked my roommates and co-workers, I was pretty much set.
On the second day we drove our economy rental car into downtown Portland, across the Burnside Bridge, and we parked near the Oyster Bar near SW Ankeny and Second – where we planned to have lunch. On the bridge I saw a long line of men who looked like they were down on their luck. I had never seen that before. Later I would learn they were waiting to get into Baloney Joe’s. As soon as we parked someone asked me for gas money. As soon as I gave that person gas money I was approached by a second person telling me not to EVER give anyone money. This was my introduction to homelessness and all the ongoing contradictions and considerations contained in how to address it.
I didn’t know it, but by 1987 homelessness had become a major political issue, and not just in Portland, but in lots of cities as an outcome of national policies during the early eighties. In response, Mayor Bud Clark’s Office had published Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness; Portland was considered a national leader. Many of the strategies in Bud Clark’s plan are completely familiar to us today, including “provide the opportunity for safe and decent housing for everyone in need.” It also called for comprehensive treatment (substance use and mental health), street sanitation, and safety.
By 1990, I was working at Outside In, a needle exchange, and many, but not all, of our clients were homeless. I began to understand that no one was going to get better if they didn’t have a place to live. Meanwhile, around me, there was a lot of tension between the business community and social services. During this time Baloney Joe’s was closed as it tried to move and expand their shelter, and by 1995, the city of Portland was very focused on shelter as a solution and adopted the Shelter Reconfiguration Plan, which was a way to distribute shelters in close to downtown or downtown neighborhoods.
In the nineties, the Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was funding local communities to create continuums of care, which started with shelter, moved to transitional housing communities, and then, eventually, permanent housing. The general approach was that people who were homeless needed to start in shelter. That if they started in shelter and proved they could be successful, then they could go to transitional housing. If they were successful in transitional housing, they could be rewarded with permanent housing. If they made a mistake (relapsed, fought with others, missed a deadline, etc.), then they went back to the streets or a shelter to start again.
However, in 1995, as part of the Shelter Reconfiguration Plan, a downtown agency, Northwest Pilot Project, led the relocation of 108 chronically homeless men into permanent housing. These men had been living at the Recovery Inn (formerly Baloney Joes) since that building was slated to be demolished. Housing placements were overwhelmingly successful. It turned out that folks did not need to go through a continuum of housing options to prove that they were ready to be housed, that in fact, people could move right into housing and be successful. They just needed a stable place to live.
Eventually in the years that followed, community organizations and HUD began to advocate for Housing First. Housing First is the strategy of putting people directly into housing without requiring them to achieve “readiness.” Numerous studies show that Housing First participants experience higher levels of housing retention and use fewer emergency and criminal justice services, which produces cost savings for taxpayers. For many, Housing First isn’t just about housing, it also requires on-site services to be available for those who need them. For people who have experienced homelessness for a really long time, supportive services can be the difference between housing success or a return to homelessness.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to put together a supportive housing community, using a Housing First approach, to house people who had been living outside (in some cases for decades). What did this mean? The people who moved in were really sick with heart conditions, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and blood infections. Many struggled with mental illness. One of our residents had been going to the emergency room every time he needed a nebulizer to assist him in breathing, but could finally stop when he moved into his own apartment and stored his prescriptions and nebulizer in his apartment. Another resident was waiting for dialysis to start, but needed to have a place to live before her provider would begin dialysis. There were so many other benefits in addition to safety and dignity; residents were able to start treatment, able to connect with estranged family members, and gain an income. I recall the joy one of our residents shared when she got a job at Ross Dress for Less.
During my entire career, our community has continued to struggle with the best way to help people end their homelessness. But while we were building new housing and shelter, we also lost so much. We lost long standing low-income housing communities through private development and neglect. We lost our ability or commitment to adequately provide treatment for mental illness and substance abuse at the rate people need. I remember when we lost General Assistance payments, and some folks who had barely been able to hold on while receiving this assistance ended up on the streets. All of these things need to be unwound and addressed in any new strategies we take on.
What is the best way to help someone?
I don’t think I can crisply answer this question any more definitively than at that moment in 1987 after handing someone a few dollars on the street. People generally know what they need to be successful. We need to ask and listen.
We also need to remember that it took us a long time to get to a place where we are short an estimated 111,000 housing units and need to build more than 550,000 homes over the next 20 years. We need to work hard to get to a new place, where we can offer more people more opportunities for safe and stable housing, for a place where they can lock their door and sleep, store their medications, build community, feed their kids, and grow roots.
It is exciting that we are having successes with the new resources approved by voters over the last two years, and it will take time to see that success on our streets as agencies, like CPAH and so many others, work to end homelessness and create housing opportunities. We know so much more than we did in 1987.
Family, community, and safety are as important for everyone now as they were for the 22-year-old me moving to Portland for the first time. A regional housing bond and tax levy for services is a powerful step granted to us by the community, thank you. Let’s keep it up, support each other as we do this work, and continue to learn.
Community Partners for Affordable Housing