Half Way Through Portland’s 10 Year Plan To End Homelessness

From OPB.org, October 12, 2009

The joint Portland-Multnomah County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness first saw the light of day in December 2004.

City commissioner Erik Sten rolled it out.

Erik Sten: “I think most people laugh when the government comes out with a plan that says ten years from now, we hope to end homelessness – but we’re doing it anyway because we believe it could happen. It could happen if we all do the work we want to do.”

The event drew the Bush Administration’s top homelessness official, Philip Mangano.

Phillip Mangano: “We already knew that chronic homeless people – the ten to twenty percent of the homeless population, consumed more than half of all the resources we spend on homelessness. But recent studies show that this is a disproportionately expensive population in mainstream healthcare.”

In the first two years of the plan, OPB tracked a handful of chronically homeless people who received shelter and services through the Ten Year Plan.

People can be stuck on the streets for a variety of reasons, often related to mental illness or drug problems.

Steve Powell was homeless because of a physical disability. Powell’s rheumatoid arthritis means he can’t use his hands to work.

He spent 15 years living outdoors. Much of that time, he was camping on a hill in Portland’s Forest Park. On a drizzly morning four years ago, Powell had just moved into an apartment, and was settling into his new life.

Steve Powell: “It’s nice to look out there and know I don’t have to get in it. Like up there in the hills in my tent, sometimes I’d be cuddled up in some blankets, just to stay warm and now, I can sit back and look at it, instead of cuddled up under something.”

Four years later, Powell still enjoys living indoors.

Steve Powell: “Yes, I’m still here, and unless something happens, I’ll stay here, you know.”

The 58 year-old Powell has two homeless friends, he refers to just as Mike and Mark, who come by occasionally. Powell says Mike wants to move inside.

Steve Powell: “As far as Mark, uh, I have no idea what he has in his head. I mean if I was him, I’d be getting off that hill because he’s getting visited by the rangers and the police, and he’s going to wind up in jail.”

Powell says he might’ve wound up dead, if he’d stayed outside. He’s heard that falling trees struck his favorite camping spot in a recent storm.

The Ten Year Plan has housed more than 2000 chronically homeless people like Steve Powell in the last four and a half years.

Powell might still be homeless if not for one of the priorities of the Ten Year Plan: permanent, subsidized shelter.

But building those places is expensive and complicated. To understand just how hard it is, let’s go back to where the Ten Year Plan was announced: the musty lobby of an old Ramada Inn in Portland’s Rose Quarter.

Again, former federal housing czar, Phil Mangano.

Phil Mangano: “And here – right here, in the building, the promise of the future isn’t it? Permanent housing for the homeless at Rose Quarter Housing.”

Ed Blackburn with the housing and treatment non-profit, Central City Concern, was optimistic in 2004, that the Ramada would soon become Rose Quarter Housing.

Ed Blackburn: “So we hope to start that renovation and have it ready, I think some time in late summer for occupancy. It may be a little sooner than that, or a little later than that.”

Fast-forward almost five years, and Rose Quarter Housing is still a construction zone, with hard hats required. Ed Blackburn says there are two big reasons the project has taken so much longer than expected.

One is best demonstrated on the top floor. It’s been completely gutted.

Ed Blackburn: “The leaks were coming through the roof, down into the walls, and because they had so many layers of vinyl wall paper on it, it wasn’t leaking out, you didn’t see it, until you started tearing the walls apart. And once you found that, we had to replace the walls, because they’d had too much water in them for too long.”

Those construction problems became even costlier, when problem number two surfaced last year. The financial meltdown that forced hundreds of Oregonians into homelessness, also tightened up the credit needed to finish housing projects.

Now, some of the rooms on a lower floor are finished. Ed Blackburn can stand on the new tile floor and admire a river view and the fall colors of Portland’s west hills. Blackburn says Central City’s five-year slog to turn this hotel into housing mirrors the struggles of the Ten Year Plan.

Ed Blackburn: “It’s not easy ending homelessness and this building wasn’t easy to keep financed. We found all things we weren’t expecting when we started tearing things apart. We worked real hard to keep things together, but it’s moving. And there are going to be setbacks but you keep moving. It’s kind of like a metaphor for the whole Ten Year Plan, this building.”

Ultimately, Blackburn agrees with city officials who don’t see much need to change the Ten Year Plan, halfway through. Portland’s new housing bureau director, Margaret Van Vliet, says the Ten Year Plan might need tweaking, but not a fundamental change.

Margaret Van Vliet: “Are we exclusively looking at the chronically homeless, or primarily looking at chronically homeless versus the newly homeless, because of the explosion in the number of newly homeless, to some extent, we’re still reacting.”

Blackburn says even though the economy has made matters worse, the Portland area is better off, thanks to a countywide focus that started when the Plan to End Homelessness was still just an idea.

Ed Blackburn: “You know that metaphor of water coming into the bathtub, and you’ve got a spoon, but it’s coming in faster than you can get it out, so the tub keeps filling up. Well, we got a big bucket about six years ago, and we started getting out the water faster than the homeless population was increasing. But now that spigot’s been turned on higher. So we’re going to have to work harder.”

Meantime, folks like Steve Powell, are grateful to have a bath tub to come home to – even as he thinks about his friends, who don’t.

READ – Don Clark / Roger Shiels Agreement, 1989
READ – Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, – Portland, Oregon
READ – City of Portland – Sit / Lie Ordinance
READ – City of Portland – Sidewalk Management Resolution final draft, October 12, 2009

OUR COMMENT: Chronic homelessness is not a result of misfortune. The chronically homeless are substantially made up of persons with an untreated – or mistreated – mental illness or addiction.

The city has made some minor improvements for finding and funding housing for persons who are chronically homeless, but the Federal “Housing First” model has proven to be a substantial failure. Without additional treatment slots funded by the state, without supportive services, without opportunity for employment, most persons who are chronically homeless will often return to homeless, burning yet another set of bridges as they fail to meet bureaucratic expectations.