In Portland, Art Therapy and Other Lures for the Homeless; Is the city helping the destitute, or merely attracting more to its neighborhoods?

From the Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2011 – not available online

Despite its sputtering economy, Portland, Ore., has seen a number of sparkling new hotels open in recent years: Starwood, Kimpton, JW Marriot and other luxury brands have all opened high-end properties in the city’s core since 2008. But perhaps no recent project matches the ambition and audacity of the city’s new Homeless Service Center, which will open this Thursday.

Straddling Portland’s Chinatown and the Pearl District, a neighborhood of reclaimed warehouse spaces, the eight-story Homeless Service Center cost $46.9 million in city, county and federal stimulus funds to construct. It will contain 130 studio apartment-style permanent residences, 90 shelter beds, and offices for 50 staff members. Complimentary GED classes, haircuts and art therapy will be on offer.

The building–replete with solar panels on the roof, bicycle racks out front, and a glassy atrium on the bottom floor–looks more like a luxury condo than a homeless center. Already, the waiting list for permanent studio apartments is 150 names, and the wait time to secure a cot is expected to be two months.

Named the Bud Clark Commons in honor of Portland’s mayor from 1985 to 1992, the center is viewed as a triumph by the city’s political leadership. City Commissioner Nick Fish was integral in managing the project and says he is “thrilled” with the development.

The center is ostensibly designed to move people out of homelessness permanently, and thus to fulfill Bud Clark‘s 1986 call to “end homelessness in Portland.” Doreen Binder, director of the nonprofit organization that will manage the day-to-day operations of the center, says the mission is to “move people from the streets into safe, secure, permanent housing. Once that housing is obtained, [the organization] will continue working with each person to assure that they retain that housing.”

It’s a noble mission. The trouble is there are no time limits for those living in the center’s studio apartment units. The job training, GED courses and writing classes that the center will offer will be entirely optional. The center’s taxpayer-funded yoga sessions and nutrition classes, meanwhile, will be available to anybody who shows up.

Chinatown has been in decline for years, thanks in large part to drug dealing and panhandling–and the city’s leniency toward both. While the neighborhood still houses several Chinese restaurants and shops, most have moved out. The neighborhood is now filled with shelters and soup kitchens. The crack dealing in the neighborhood has become so flagrant that Portland Mayor Sam Adams recently announced a new plan to implement a Drug Free Zone to combat the scourge.

Panhandling remains rife. On a recent afternoon, I witnessed three people harass commuters for change at the transit station across from the center in five minutes. Justin Hansen, a project manager at a production company five blocks from the center, says he is panhandled at least one or two times a day on his way to work and more often when he ventures deep into Chinatown. Mike Boyer, the city’s crime prevention program coordinator for Chinatown, concedes that homelessness is a “livability issue” in the neighborhood.

Some area residents actually see the homeless as integral to the fabric of the neighborhood. David Garrett, a college professor who has lived near a part of Chinatown called Old Town for 12 years, says that “Old Town has [long] been the center of social services and homeless organizations in the city. . . . It’s good to see Portland acting on its commitment to keep this central neighborhood a community open to all.”

Not everyone agrees. When the location of the center was being debated, Richard Louie of the Chinatown Business Association testified to the Portland City Council that “We . . . believe that the new center will bring [homeless] people from all over the city to our neighborhood.”

The concerns are justified. Over the past two decades, government and nonprofits in the city have built over a thousand shelter beds and provided numerous services, including transition programs, to the homeless. Yet the homeless population continues to rise. A 2009 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Oregon has the highest rate of homeless people in the country. No doubt some of this is due to the recession, which hit Oregon harder than most states. But Portland has become a real destination for homeless people.

They’re not coming for the weather. Portland has justly gained a reputation as a place with a high tolerance for vagrancy. Even as San Francisco–San Francisco!–has implemented an ordinance that bans sitting or lying on city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., Portland has shown little inclination to do the same, despite persistent and occasionally aggressive panhandling. (Portland once had a sit/lie ordinance, but it expired in 2009 and appears unlikely to be reinstated, despite advocacy from the Portland Business Alliance.)

Instead of ending homelessness, the city’s generous services may be spurring it. Regarding ever more lavish service centers, the lesson might be: If we build it, they will come.

Author Ethan Epstein is a writer living in Portland.