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Portland’s Homeless Challenge

from the magazine

Portland’s Homeless Challenge

The Pacific Northwest city, long a magnet for street people, is experimenting with unusual reforms. Winter 2016
The Social Order
Cities

My hometown, Portland, Oregon, has a homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges—more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It’s impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways, and where you can’t walk long without being hit up for spare change. You can hardly drive near the city center without encountering men or women holding up cardboard signs asking for money at an intersection.

Roughly 620,000 people live in Portland, and the suburbs push the metro area population to more than 2.3 million. As of January 2015, Multnomah County, which includes most of the city proper and all the city center, had 3,801 homeless people. Of these, according to the county’s biennial count, about 800 live in temporary shelters, 1,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 1,800 are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping under bridges, in parks, and on sidewalks.

Almost everyone who visits me asks what’s wrong with this place. Portland is a prosperous, high-tech Pacific Rim city, so why does it have so many street people? Is something uniquely the matter with the city? Not necessarily. But Portland is a better place to be homeless than most American cities. The weather is mild, the citizens are generous—Portlanders spend millions yearly in private donations and tax dollars trying to help the homeless—and public officials are blocked by the courts from regulating vagrancy in ways that are routine elsewhere. Some homeless actually move to Portland from other cities. Homelessness is so visible here that it has encouraged not only expansive nonprofit relief efforts, some of which seem to be doing real good, but also, in at least one case, an innovative approach that may truly ease the problem—and that other cities might consider adopting.

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness."

Homelessness is not a new issue in American life, but it started getting much worse everywhere—not just in Portland—beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the deinstitutionalization movement, which closed many state psychiatric hospitals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, by 2010, the number of beds per capita in psychiatric hospitals had plunged to 1850s levels. When the most severely mentally ill patients were freed from a system discredited by 1960s social movements and books like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they were ill-prepared for normal life. Many found themselves relegated to a Hobbesian existence on sidewalks.

“Dammasch State Hospital closed 20 years ago,” says David Willis, the homeless-services coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit. “Some went into adult foster care, but others stayed on the streets. The people who work in foster care don’t have a background in psychiatric counseling or care. They can’t handle these people. And mentally ill homeless people can’t help themselves. Somebody has to take care of them. Somebody has to make sure they bathe, change their clothes, and take their medications.”

Portland city councilman and housing commissioner Dan Saltzman agrees. “That did increase the homeless population on the streets of Portland and a lot of other cities,” he says of deinstitutionalization. “It’s a nationwide problem, and it really pulled the rug out from underneath a lot of people. Community resources were supposed to be put into place when we closed the big institutions, but the second part didn’t happen.”

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness of one kind or another, though many remain undiagnosed. “We see people with schizophrenia, depression, and trauma,” says Alexa Mason at the Portland Rescue Mission, another Christian nonprofit that provides food, blankets, and temporary shelter downtown. “Women on the streets are likely to be assaulted within 72 hours. Men get beat up. Just living outside is traumatizing. . . . When you add that on top of schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, people keep getting worse. This is one thing that everybody in government, social services, and the business community agrees on.”

Not everyone on the streets is mentally ill, and not all are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some just lost their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and found themselves in a maze from which they couldn’t escape. What almost all of them share, however, are weak social and family ties. “Almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network,” says Mason. “A lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.”

But these problems aren’t confined to the American Northwest; why does Portland seem to have so many more homeless people than elsewhere? One reason may be simple: Portland is a relatively “easy” place to be homeless—or, at least, it’s less brutal than elsewhere. Portlanders are indeed tolerant, and so are the police—not necessarily because they want to be but because they have to be. The city has repeatedly passed anti-panhandling statutes and so-called sit-lie ordinances, which ban sitting and lying on sidewalks, but they’re tough to enforce, thanks to reliably libertarian interpretations of Oregon’s constitution by the state supreme court and lower-level circuit courts. The result is that homeless people are more visible—and more numerous—here than in many other cities.

Portland’s gentle climate is another factor. Contrary to popular belief, Portland gets a third less rain than New York City, and the temperatures are milder year-round. Snow falls and sticks only once every few years. Sleeping outside in January’s 40-degree weather may not be comfortable, but it sure beats sleeping on the sidewalk in, say, Chicago, where one night in subzero weather can be fatal.

Portland’s nonprofit homeless services are extensive. “Portland Rescue Mission provides emergency services including meals, showers, clothing, and shelter for people living on the streets,” says Mason. “It’s open 24/7. We have mail service for about 1,000 people. From November 1 through March 31, we offer a free blanket exchange every night.” Though it doesn’t have beds for everyone—those get awarded by daily lottery—Portland Rescue Mission never runs out of food. “We have really good food here,” says Stacy Kean, the communications director at Union Gospel Mission, “food that you would want to eat. Having breakfast here is like going out to brunch. We have fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes.” “You wouldn’t believe how much food they have in the freezer,” a friend who volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank told me. When homeless people in downtown Portland ask passersby if they have any spare change, most of us assume that they need money for food. They don’t.

Are the homeless coming to Portland from elsewhere? “I don’t really believe these stories about other jurisdictions buying homeless people bus tickets to Portland,” says Commissioner Saltzman, but then he concedes: “Portland is a tolerant city and has a moderate West Coast climate, so I think there’s some truth to it.” “Most of the homeless people I know are from Portland or another West Coast city,” says Mason, “but I have met people who said they were homeless somewhere else and moved here intentionally to take advantage of Portland’s services and milder weather.” Agrees Willis of Union Gospel Mission: “They’re from Seattle. Texas. Alabama. People are coming here because we make it comfortable to be homeless.”

If Portland Rescue Mission is like an emergency room on the ragged edge, Union Gospel Mission resembles a long-term-care unit. Its approach is worth emulating. It was founded in Portland in 1927, when 40 area churches came together to provide meals, shelter, and religious guidance to the destitute as part of a larger mission across the United States and Canada. Back then, the organization’s services resembled those provided by the Portland Rescue Mission today; but 25 years ago, its directors changed focus to treat one of the primary causes of homelessness: drug and alcohol addiction. Today, Union Gospel Mission dedicates most of its resources to a comprehensive multiyear program called Life Changes. The mission still provides meals and hygiene kits to anyone who needs them, but the only way anyone can spend the night there when it’s not below freezing outside (as it can be on some winter nights) is by agreeing to participate in the program. Like Portland Rescue Mission, Union Gospel Mission is a faith-based charity that receives no government funding.

The program’s first three to four months comprise the Stability phase, which often begins with detoxing. Next comes the Healing phase, where residents get counseling and work therapy. Some stay for up to a year in what’s called the Passage phase, while they find a job and save money. It’s hard for me to imagine how a chronically homeless addict who hasn’t worked for years can ever live a normal life again, but Kean, the communications director, insists that it’s possible. “I’ve seen it hundreds of times,” she tells me. “Working this program, healing past traumas, and committing to living clean and sober make a huge difference. People need a social support structure. If your friends are healthy and are making good choices, you’ll do a lot better than if your friends are shooting up and drinking all the time. We become their new social support network. We connect them with churches, recovery groups, schooling, and jobs so that they can build something positive in their lives. We discourage them from going back to their old dysfunctional friends and relationships.”

The brand-new facility is impressive. It’s no luxury hotel, but with its spacious and clean rooms, it’s much nicer than my old college dorm complex. The heat and noise from the street seem miles away.

“I was trying to get clean for years,” says Doug, a young man in the cafeteria who is currently in the Passage phase. “I lived in a clean and sober house, but I lost my paychecks to gambling and they kicked me out. I had nowhere to go. It was dangerous out there, and I felt all empty inside.” Nowadays, he talks like someone with his act together. He says that he’s starting college in the fall and plans to major in psychology.

When I asked Kean about the waiting list to get in, she said that there isn’t one—they have ten spaces available that nobody wants. Why don’t more people want to come inside out of the heat or the cold? “Because they don’t want to stop using drugs,” Doug says bluntly. “It’s hard for some of them to deal with other people and structure.” Willis adds: “What they want is to live the way they’ve been living, only inside and for free. Most of them don’t want to change.” As Doug concludes, “there are rules and boundaries in here, but actually that’s a good thing. This place will be my backbone as I go forward.”

Just behind the Union Gospel Mission is a semipermanent homeless site that looks like a refugee camp. Right to Dream Too (which the organizers abbreviate as R2D2, after the bleeping robot in Star Wars) was erected on an empty private lot four years ago by Ibrahim Mubarak, who greets me with a smile, dressed in a flowing gold robe and a white Islamic skullcap. His real name is Keith Jackson, and he grew up in Chicago, where he ran with the Black Gangster Disciples, the murderous street gang founded by David Barksdale. Mubarak used and sold drugs, fought the law and lost, and spent time on the streets before getting clean, converting to Islam, and transforming himself into a homeless activist.

Some people live at the camp while others just spend the night once in a while. Mubarak says that 276 people who once slept there have since found housing and 250 people found work, though I have no way of confirming those numbers. Before he let me in, he asked me to read and agree to the Code of Conduct posted at the security gate. “I know you’re not going to violate any rules,” he said, “but we ask everyone to read this and agree to it before they come in here.” The rules are straightforward: no weapons, no violence, no drugs, and no degrading racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks. Everyone who uses one of the portable toilets must submit to a pocket search to ensure that they aren’t carrying drugs or paraphernalia.

R2D2 includes men’s and women’s sleeping tents and a couples sleeping tent. It has a kitchen with a hot-water tank and ample cleaning supplies. Behind the kitchen is a computer lab, which Mubarak calls the “Empowerment Center.” Next to the back wall of the Union Gospel Mission is the “Membership Area,” where a dozen or so individual backpackers have pitched tents semipermanently. “Everyone who lives here has to be looking for a job and housing,” Mubarak says. “They can’t just squat here”—though one wonders if some of the homeless here aren’t doing just that.

Mubarak was homeless once. He founded R2D2 as a place where the homeless can have what he calls “safe rest.” “You can’t get a job or housing without safe rest—if you can’t bathe and if you have to carry all your personal possessions with you. Would you hire an unkempt guy who brings everything he owns to a job interview? I wouldn’t. Neither would you.”

He wants to open several more of these “rest areas” throughout Portland to get homeless people off sidewalks, out from underneath bridges, and out of doorways downtown. His is an operation similar to Portland Rescue Mission, only he’s doing it outside and with almost no budget. But I had to ask: Why are these people sleeping in tents behind the Union Gospel Mission building when they could live inside for free?

“Union Gospel Mission,” Mubarak says, “wants to program everyone to live their way instead of the way each individual wants to live.” I’m reminded of what David Willis at the mission said—that many homeless people don’t want to change.

Many Portlanders wish that R2D2 would go away. It’s an eyesore, admittedly. If the camp were cleared by the police, though, the people sleeping there likely wouldn’t go far. They’d turn up in parks, doorways, underneath bridges—somewhere in town. The city isn’t buying them bus tickets to Idaho.

In 2000, before the courts struck down one of Portland’s sit-lie ordinances, a group of homeless people, tired of getting rousted from doorways downtown, pushed their shopping carts together under a bridge, pitched some tents, and called the place home. The city chased them from that spot, so they moved to another bridge and got tossed out again. Realizing that these people weren’t going away, the city finally relented and allowed them to pitch their tents on a city-owned lot near a drainage canal—across from the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a state-run prison, and on the other side of the fence from Portland International Airport. From Portland officials’ point of view, the location was perfect. They wouldn’t hear complaints from the neighbors because there weren’t any neighbors. The homeless campers dubbed their site Dignity Village, with the motto “Out of the Doorways.”

When I drove out to visit, I expected Dignity Village to look like a cross between a refugee camp and a slum—but it doesn’t. After the residents found themselves with a permanent location, they upgraded their accommodations by scrounging together as much money as they could—from donations and panhandling to odd jobs and recycling bottles and cans—to purchase cast-off and recycled materials for the construction of what Portlanders call “tiny houses.” The houses aren’t fancy, but many sport some style—Victorian spindles and moldings on the front porches, properly pitched roofs, decorative paint jobs, and climbing ivies growing up the exterior walls. Compared with lodging under the Burnside Bridge (among others), these accommodations are luxury estates.

The atmosphere in Dignity Village is surprisingly pleasant—friendly, orderly, even civilized. The streets are quiet because nobody owns a car. The village is governed by an elected council, with Rick Proudfoot as CEO. He was thrilled when I showed up and asked for a tour. “There were some spaces closer in that the founders wanted,” he says. “But it’s actually better that we’re out here away from town. This place wouldn’t exist as it does now if it were in the city center. It would have been a magnet for dope dealers, or all the users would have come in and ruined it.”

The city contract requires Dignity Village inhabitants to provide their own security—they have resident security guards, and visitors must check in—but they would have done that, anyway. “We don’t want somebody coming in here and wandering off with our stuff,” Proudfoot says. “This is the smallest little gated community in Portland.”

In 2005, Proudfoot, now 47, lost his job as a foreman at Freightliner after an injury. He lived on unemployment and savings for a year and a half but couldn’t find another job and ended up on the streets and, eventually, in Dignity Village. His story—that of a capable middle-class person winding up homeless—is far from typical. “A lot of people here have been homeless long-term, for ten-plus years,” he explains. “A lot have had substance-abuse problems. Ten years ago, I would never have associated myself with these kinds of people. I don’t mean to sound snobbish, but I was making almost $100,000 a year with overtime.”

Though he’s not happy to be here, Proudfoot admits that his life is less stressful now. After paying for food, his living expenses run only about $100 a month. “I don’t have cash to spend on crap I don’t need, but once you get past the point where you’ve simplified your life—you have enough food, clothes to wear, and a little bit of entertainment—you don’t need very much else.”

Dignity Village costs local taxpayers nothing. Residents pay all their own utility bills, including $35 a month for space rent. They pitch in to pay for community water, electricity, garbage collection, and a wireless Internet account. The houses have no indoor plumbing and most aren’t wired for electricity, but three have solar panels, and all are kept warm in the winter with propane heaters. Charging stations for cell phones and laptops have been placed near the community kitchen, the community shower house, and the portable toilets. Rain catchment systems alleviate water costs. I wondered aloud if the word “homeless” truly applies any longer to these people. “Technically,” Proudfoot says, “this is transitional housing. That’s why we want to get our own property. We won’t have to sit under a city contract any more.”

Many residents have jobs, though they aren’t full-time. One guy mows lawns. Another chops and sells firewood. Proudfoot fixes computers when he isn’t busy managing the village’s day-to-day operations. “I’d like to get out of here,” he says, “but I’m trying to improve this place while I’m here. I get a little depressed every now and then, but I don’t dwell on it. While I’m here, I want to do the best job I can and make this place the best it can possibly be.”

It’s a decent place—certainly the best “homeless camp” I’ve ever seen—not only because the residents have improved it over time but also because the rules impose just enough personal responsibility on everyone. Drug and alcohol offenses or disruptive behavior will get a person evicted, as will missing rent three months in a row or refusing to put in the required ten hours per week of community service. Proudfoot insists that, aside from their extremely low incomes, he and his neighbors aren’t so different from everyone else in the city—and I believe him. They pay their own bills. They work. They take care of their community and one another. They’re drastically at odds with the stereotypical homeless person—yet many of them were stereotypical homeless people, sleeping under bridges, pushing around shopping carts, and all the rest of it. What changed, then? Three things: they found a place to call their own, they cobbled together some structure and rules in their lives, and they worked hard to better their circumstances. Now that they have something to lose, they’re forced to be responsible. It wouldn’t have happened without the city’s blessing and help, but it’s not a big-government program—it’s not any kind of program.

Proudfoot has a pension waiting for him from Freightliner—he worked there for 17 years—but he can’t touch it until he’s 55. When he does get his pension, he won’t bother renting or buying a regular home. “I’ll be fine,” he says. “I’ll find a piece of property and build a tiny house on it. I’m used to it.”

Some homeless advocates insist on what they call a “housing first” model. The theory is that if the government provides homeless people with rent-free apartments while they get their lives sorted out and find a job, they’ll be able to pay the rent themselves after a few months. But Portland would rather focus on making affordable housing available through the private sector. “We can’t just put people in housing,” says Commissioner Saltzman. “It wouldn’t be sustainable. We have more of a balanced approach.”

The best solution, Saltzman believes, is getting real-estate developers to set aside units for low-income people. The last thing the city wants is the public-housing blocks that other cities built during the 1960s and 1970s, which turned into crime-ridden slums almost everywhere they were tried. Saltzman wants mixed-income communities and developments so that poverty isn’t concentrated, but the city can’t do it without the private sector, and funding affordable housing is “bafflingly complicated,” he says. “Developers aren’t interested in anything other than market-rate housing, so we’re trying to establish incentives. We’ll allow them to build higher, for instance. And it’s easier for developments to pencil-out [turn a profit] if high-paying renters are in the same building as low-income people. Rent from the penthouse units can subsidize rent for the moderate units.”

An even better option might be more of those “tiny houses.” Dignity Village proves that they can work, at least for some homeless people. Basic tiny-house structures with just 200 square feet or so can be purchased for as little as $3,000. I found one on tinyhouselistings.com for only $1,200. A person could work part-time at Starbucks and afford one; a homeless person could conceivably panhandle enough to buy one with cash if he didn’t spend the money on drugs or booze (a big if, obviously). Those who are a little better off can buy something much nicer for $20,000. Tiny homes are a potential solution for the working poor as well as the homeless, but so far, most tiny houses in America exist in rural locations because urban zoning generally doesn’t allow them. Portland mayor Charlie Hales wants to change city zoning laws to allow for more tiny houses, and Josh Alpert, his director of strategic initiatives, says that it’s only a question of when.

But they wouldn’t work for everyone. What about the mentally ill? What about substance abusers who can’t or won’t change? What about those who can’t or won’t get a job? Not even super-affordable housing comes free. Dignity Village won’t accept substance abusers, and they’ve kicked people out who can’t or won’t pay rent.

Some homeless people—like Rick Proudfoot—are staggeringly unlucky, but many are, at least to an extent, the authors of their misfortune. Others—like schizophrenics and other mentally ill people—are simply unable to take care of themselves inside or outside a tiny house or affordable apartment. Some people still aren’t going to make it. Some will hit bottom and stay there, no matter how many affordable units we build and no matter how generous and tolerant we are. “These ten-year plans to end homelessness haven’t gotten us anywhere,” says Saltzman. “I’d never attach a deadline to ending it. I just don’t think it’s something we can totally eliminate unless you’re Minneapolis during the winter and people have no choice but to leave. But I don’t know where they go.”

A lot of them wash up out West—not just in Portland but in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—where the weather is kinder. We can reduce the numbers living on the street, and Portland may show a way to begin to do so. At the same time, it’s clear that the problem will remain one to be managed rather than solved.

Top Photo: Notwithstanding its prosperous, high-tech identity, Portland has a large homeless population. (JOHN RUDOFF/DEMOTIX/CORBIS)

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