Report shows rise in Portland homelessness

From the Portland Tribune, December 18 2008

Report shows rise in homelessness – Successes shown by city’s ten-year plan appear to lose ground

The ten-year plan to reduce homelessness in Portland appears to have suffered a setback, according to a recent city auditor’s report. Homelessness in Portland is up 33 percent over four years ago, and many blame the current economic downturn.

The ten-year plan to reduce homelessness in Portland appears to have suffered a setback, according to a recent city auditor’s report. Homelessness in Portland is up 33 percent over four years ago, and many blame the current economic downturn.

For the past two years, city officials have announced with pride that their 10-year plan to end homelessness was working. An annual one-night count of the homeless showed there were fewer people sleeping on the streets in the downtown area, as well as throughout the city, each year.

Not anymore.

Local authorities think it’s probably due to the economic downturn, but whatever the reason, there are more homeless people in Portland, with the majority concentrated in the downtown area, than there have been in years.

According to the city auditor’s annual government performance report, released last week, homelessness in Portland is up 33 percent over four years ago, when the plan to end homelessness was initiated.

READ – City of Portland Service Efforts and Accomplishments: 2007-08 (PDF 1.1 MB)

Some officials and advocates for the homeless question the auditor’s numbers, which are based on one-night counts of people in Multnomah County shelters, rather than people actually sleeping on the street, but none deny that homelessness is on the rise.

It was just short of two years ago that then-city Commissioner Erik Sten announced after an annual one-night survey that homelessness had appeared to decline 39 percent.

Not everybody is sure it did.

“We’ve been saying for a few years that homelessness has been rising,” says Patrick Nolen, community organizer for Sisters of the Road Cafe, an Old Town nonprofit that serves meals to a predominantly homeless population.

Nolen says that five years ago, Sisters was serving about 250 meals a day, and now they are serving about 425 a day, almost all to homeless people.

Nolen says he has talked to a number of homeless people who told him they have never been counted in the city’s annual one-night survey.

Sally Erickson, homeless program coordinator for Portland’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development, agrees that homelessness is on the rise this year, but maintains the one-night counts are an accurate reflection of homelessness in Portland.

Erickson says that the one-night count showed that in 2005, 1,020 people were turned away from shelters – most in the downtown area. In 2006, 664 people were turned away from shelters in one January night. In 2007, 575 were turned away, indicating more progress. But in January 2008, 709 were turned away, showing the start of an increase.

Erickson says city and county efforts to put more homeless people into subsidized apartments and to build new shelters made a major dent in the homeless population. She places blame for the increase on the recession.

“If not for the ten-year plan, we would be in much worse trouble,” she says.

But the increase in numbers is not the only trend among homelessness in Portland, according to Erickson and others.

Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper produced and sold by homeless people, says the paper, long based in Old Town at 211 N.W. Davis St., is planning to open a second office this summer. But it won’t be in the downtown area. Instead, Street Roots will open where more of the homeless appear to be moving, to outer Southeast and Northeast Portland.

The new Street Roots office will be at Northeast 81st Avenue and Northeast Halsey Street.

“We see poverty trends moving east,” Bayer says. “As more of Portland becomes gentrified, we’re seeing poverty at all levels moving out of the city.”

Bayer and others say many homeless who once slept on streets in the downtown area now camp in areas around I-205 and in the Gateway area of Northeast Portland.

Nolen, of Sisters of the Road, says that some of the movement of the homeless to Southeast and Northeast Portland is due to police enforcing the city’s controversial anti-camping ordinance in the downtown area. Portland police this spring conducted a sweep of a number of homeless camps beneath the city’s bridges, in some cases taking away possessions and handing out citations.

“The anti-camping law is enforced less the farther out you go,” Nolen says. “And the sit/lie ordinance (which prohibits daytime sidewalk obstruction) is only in the downtown core. The one effect it truly has had is, the more you push people along with it, eventually people move.”

But many advocates say social service providers, still predominantly downtown and in Old Town, have not yet caught up with the trend to the east, leaving many homeless there without services such as health care, food and shelter.

Last week the nonprofit Oregon Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of four homeless people, seeking to invalidate the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

The city’s annual one-night count of homeless people will take place January 28, and organizer Erickson says she could use help. Volunteers willing to spend a couple evening hours interviewing the homeless at either social service agencies or on the street are needed. To volunteer, go to www.handsonportland.org .

EXTRA – Home Again, A 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness PDF. A significantly flawed plan which fails to acknowledge the impact of untreated addiction and mental illness on homelessness.
EXTRA – BHCD’s web site for homeless services