Who are Portland’s homeless?

By Evan Sernoffsky, KGW News, Nov. 2, 2013

Homeless person with dogAfter a summer of clashes between cops and street kids, a sweep of campers in front of Portland’s City Hall, and the contentious possible move of the Right to Dream Too camp, homelessness has taken center-stage as one of Portland’s hot-button issues.

But many in the Rose City may have a skewed perception of Portland’s homeless due to a relatively small yet visible group, many of whom migrate up and down the west coast depending on the time of year.

Among the most conspicuous homeless are those who sleep on the streets and sidewalks of downtown and Old Town Portland. It’s on this pavement where they cross paths with the business community, downtown shoppers, and families visiting from out of town. But this group really only makes up about 10 percent of the city’s homeless population, according to a 2013 report by the city of Portland and Multnomah County.

On a given night, some 2,869 people are without homes in Portland with 1,572 more living in transitional housing, the report shows.

Life on the streets can be brutal. In 2011, 47 homeless people died in Portland, according to one study, and experts point out that the number could be much larger because only deaths under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner are counted.

Many of these homeless are families with children and individuals working to overcome unemployment, high housing costs, health-related issues, domestic abuse, mental illness, or substance addiction.

The city’s data, however, may not accurately represent the real number of those who sleep on downtown Portland’s streets and sidewalks. The Point-In-Time report, which is conducted by the city of Portland and Multnomah County, provides only a snapshot of Portland’s homelessness on one night in January.

Now, as Portland’s unseasonably warm October shifts to cooler, wetter, winter weather, many of the city’s young homeless will pack up their bed rolls, thumb a ride, or hop a freight train to cities with warmer and drier climates.

Those who stay will contribute to Portland’s rising homeless rate. According to the numbers, almost a third of people on the streets have only been in Portland for two years or less and 60 percent of that group was homeless when they came to Portland. KGW also learned that many cities are providing their homeless with one-way bus tickets to Portland.

The impact created by the street kids that travel through Portland every summer, only to leave as the seasons change, not only has the city’s business community grumbling about damage to the economy but has, in many ways, negatively defined the city’s permanent homeless population.

“There’s a group of individuals that have come to know the streets as their community,” said Israel Bayer, an advocate for the homeless in Portland who is the executive director of street newspaper Street Roots. “Many of them grew up in foster homes and missed a lot of early childhood milestones. They have no parental safety net and when they’re engaged in just surviving, it can be challenging.”

He said these groups, which have come to be known as “travelers” or “street kids,” often make their way to warmer places like San Diego, Austin, and Albuquerque after the summer. Many move illegally as stowaways on freight trains and need to get over the mountain passes before the first freeze hits. This nomadic group of travelers is consequently never counted when the city collects its data on homelessness in January.

Bayer also said many local homeless resources don’t coordinate across cities so there is no hard data on how many migratory homeless people come and go during the warmer months.

This past summer, problems with this small yet visible group got police attention, prompted discussions about sidewalk civility and made news headlines.

In July, a man described as a homeless traveler smashed 70-year-old Larry Allen in the face with a skateboard outside the Portland Outdoor Store, sending him to the hospital. Daniel Delbert Dorson, 18, was arrested three months later in Humboldt County, Calif.

“Our central precinct sees complaints that are mostly due to livability issues. People sleeping in doorways, urinating outside, garbage, drugs,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson with the Portland Police Bureau. “In the warmer months, we see the same behavior with street kids but it’s definitely more aggressive.”

This year, two well-documented altercations between out-of-town business people and aggressive young homeless people had many in the business community worried that Portland may be gaining a reputation as being unsafe.

In one instance, a sales manager from the non-profit marketing organization Travel Portland was touring two women who were looking to book a meeting at the Oregon Convention Center. The women were reportedly intimidated by an aggressive panhandler who berated the group, followed them onto a MAX train, and eventually into the convention center where a security guard had to step in. Megan Conway with Travel Portland said the altercation was a deciding factor in the planners opting to have their convention elsewhere.

According to a spokesperson with the Oregon Convention Center, events at the venue bring in around $434 million to the city every year.

In a second incident, a board member from a national group was walking around downtown with his wife when he was punched in the head and knocked to the ground, injuring his face and breaking his ribs, according to Conway. Travel Portland wants to make sure these incidents don’t irreparably damage the city’s reputation as a safe destination and consequently have a negative impact on Portland’s economy.

Many who work with homeless youth in Portland point out the difference between the migratory travelers and those who live in Portland year-round.

“It’s cyclical, every time the weather starts to warm up, we start to hear grumbling about the homeless young people downtown,” said Kevin Donegan, who works with homeless and runaway at Janus youth programs. “But ‘young people’ can mean anyone ages 16-30.”

Donegan works to try to engage young people to get them into housing, help them with education, and work to find them employment. He said most of the people in his services are not engaged in downtown problems.

“If someone is passing through town, they don’t generally use our services, and if we know they are involved in problems, they don’t get services,” he said.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Portland is growing. Those who sleep outside in abandoned buildings, vehicles or other places not intended for human habitation went up 10 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to city data.

Portland has routinely pledged to respond to what it calls the crisis of homelessness. In 2004, Portland created the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which established ambitious goals to help find housing, jobs, health care and emergency services for those in need.

After a summer of crackdowns on homeless campers around Portland’s City Hall, Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman is requesting an additional $1.7 million for homeless services in Portland from the city’s annual fall adjustment to the city’s budget.

Saltzman wrapped up a series of meetings with stakeholders in the community Monday with the goal of making a visible change to Portland’s homeless situation.

Mayor Charlie Hales is in China working on, among other things, securing more public art that would go to raise money for Portland’s homeless. Spokesman Dana Haynes said the mayor supports Saltzman’s plan to visibly change the face of homelessness in Portland.

City leaders are still refining the proposal, which must be approved by Nov. 13.