By Joanne Zuhl, Staff writer
Midway through the city of Portland and Multnomah County’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, an impressive number of people have been housed through a coordinated, countywide effort.
Likewise, however, an impressive number of people have arrived newly homeless to the streets through a national disaster.
Five years into the plan, which promotes “housing first” with supportive permanent housing programs, more than 7,000 homeless households have moved from the streets into housing. At the same time, the engines of recession are driving more people to the streets for the first time in their lives. As of 2009, more than 16,000 people remain enrolled in programs with one or more homeless service providers and on any given night, more than 2,500 people are homeless on the streets or in shelters, according to the city’s report. The numbers reflect the streets of 2005 when the plan was launched. “The continued shortage of affordable housing, combined with increased cuts to social services,” states the latest annual report on the plan, “continues to heavily strain our already overwhelmed delivery system, resulting in diminished access to housing and services for Portland’s most vulnerable residents.”
“So much has changed in the past five years,” says Sally Erickson, homeless program manager for the city of Portland. “When we started the plan, there was a great availability of below market housing, so significant increased investments from the city and county we were able to move lots of people from the streets into housing. The vacancy rates are now much smaller.”
So are the local budgets to fund the plan. Despite a $1 million one-time infusion from Portland, both the city and county resources are having to chip away at services, and the state budget is expected to be equally severe. “I know that there are going to be additional cuts at the state level. I don’t know at this point how that may effect us. Low-income people were affected by the recession first and hardest. There are rates that rival The Great Depression. That has pushed more people into homelessness who were previously able to maintain housing.”
Not mentioned in the latest report on the plan is the projected nosedive of a leading sustained funding source for affordable housing in Portland — the 30 percent set-aside in tax revenues from urban renewal district developments. Because of the slowdown in development, the Portland Housing Bureau expects that revenue to drop from the curent $70 million to $26 million in 2011-12, and $16.4 million in 2012-13.
“It is expected that we will produce fewer rental housing units,” says Maileen Hamto, public information officer with Portland Housing Bureau.
The 10-year plan program was created under the Bush administration as a mandate for funding programs for people experiencing chronic homelessness, defined by the length of time people were homeless and having a disability. Portland and Multnomah County’s plan, titled Home Alone, has been heralded by Washington D.C. as a beacon of success in getting people off the streets, making a example of the “housing first” model that made stabilizing people in housing a priority, with wrap-around services and subsidies to help them sustain their housing.
Under the Obama administration, the language is changing. On June 21, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which oversees the 10-year plan program, will unveil the new Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, which in process and policy supplants the 10-year plan concept. The new plan, set on a five-year agenda, will focus on not only ending chronic homelessness, but on a wider population, including veterans, families, youths and children, setting a “path to ending all types of homelessness.” That’s a major expansion, from the federal viewpoint, on the 10-year agenda and one driven by accumulating statistics that the streets are filling up with families.
Paul Carlson, regional coordinator for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, based in Seattle, said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the report until it was released, and that it was unclear what additional resources would be dedicated to address family and youth homelessness.
Lee Jones, a spokesman for the Bureau of Housing and Urban Development, said that many plans, including Portland’s, already addressed family homelessness.
“That point was certainly brought home because of the economy, especially for a state like Oregon that’s been particularly hard hit,” Jones said.
Oregon’s unemployment rates have exceeded the national average for 25 of the past 33 years, and the Oregon Health Plan has dropped 80,000 low-income people from its roles over the past several years, shifting health care to emergency and social-service programs, or no program at all.
“I think it’s going to be really tough for the next year or two,” Erickson said. “With the 10-year plan, if we had had the same economy (as before) and we were implementing the changes, we would see a much different picture. Without the plan, I think we would be seeing many more people on the streets than we’re seeing now.”