By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer
Looking at the housing and homeless landscape these days, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish paints a pretty grim picture.
“It’s a rising tide of need with declining resources. That’s it in a nutshell,” says Fish, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau. “We’ve got more adults and families facing homelessness, more families being priced out of the housing market. We’ve got historic vacancy rates. Unemployment is still very high. We’re now catching the foreclosure fever. We’re still in a deep recession, and we have fewer resources to meet the need. It’s a perfect storm.”
This from a self-proclaimed glass-half-full kind of guy.
That internal optimism will be needed as the city slogs forward in its 2012-13 budget “cutting” process, with all bureaus asked by Mayor Sam Adams to submit reduction proposals of 4, 6 and 8 percent. In addition to the bureau packages, the mayor has to decide how the shrunken pool of one-time money — funding allocated in each cycle by the mayor — is divvied up. Last year, that was a pool of about $23 million. This year it’s projected at about $11 million.
Of that, Fish’s Portland Housing Bureau is asking for nearly $4.8 million to pay for the city’s social safety net: short-term rent assistance, shelter and emergency services, housing access and homeownership programs, and the Bud Clark Commons. It’s not new money, but it is subject to the mayor and council’s approval, each with their own bureau budgets in play. The police bureau alone is asking for $5.4 million in one-time funding. The mayor is expected to come out with his budget in early May.
“It’s going to be much more competitive,” Fish says, “The safety net is competing against fire stations, against the mayor’s education agenda, against the Portland Plan. We’re going to have to make some tough choices.”
The Portland Housing Bureau’s $91 million total budget request is a combination of seven sources, including the city’s General Fund. All of those sources are under pressure. The city is losing $3 million from federal fund sources because of cuts in Washington, D.C. It’s revenue from tax increment financing has hit the cliff — falling from about $40 million in 2010 to around $17 million starting next year. An 8 percent reduction would cost another $500,000.
One of the few constants in the budget has been local funding. The city, under Mayor Adams, has consistently backed the safety net for people engaged in getting off the streets, staying in housing, and securing long-term stable housing.
Adams was unavailable to comment in time for publication, but spokesperson Amy Ruiz said the mayor has long backed these funding streams. “In this especially difficult budget year, he pledges to do his best to continue protecting housing and social services,” Ruiz said.
One of the main lines in the safety net is short-term rent assistance, a consolidation of funds leveraged by local money. It is used to pay for a couple of months of rent for qualified families working to stay in housing. JOIN, a nonprofit housing assistance organization, receives about $100,000 in short-term rent assistance from city coffers. It one of the most significant sources of rent assistance JOIN receives from the General Fund. Unlike other funding sources, this money is flexibile enough to fill critical gaps.
“We’re very reliant on those funds, especially for some of our highest barrier folks who have the biggest struggles to getting back into housing,” says Marc Jolin, JOIN’s executive director.
For example, Jolin says, federal funds may pay for rent for a couple of months to get someone into housing, but it won’t pay for a deposit or for the application fee. That’s where local funds connect the dots.
The numbers of people coming to JOIN looking for assistance to housing is growing, Jolin says. So is the number of people who have gotten into housing, but because of the prolonged economic stagnation, are now coming back looking for eviction prevention.
“We’re definitely continuing to see the number of folks actually on the streets and in vehicles and in the shelters grow,” Jolin says. “The recession has dragged on long enough that a lot of people who were just barely making it month-to-month, then went to a couch-surfing arrangement, have worn out that opportunity and really have no place left but the streets.”
There are already more than 1,700 homeless people sleeping outdoors every night, according to the city and Multnomah County’s 2011 one-night count. That’s out of more than 4,600 counted as homeless. Waiting lists for transitional housing in the city average from several weeks to several months, with hundreds of people waiting to get into housing this past winter. The Housing Bureau estimates that an 8 percent budget cut will mean thousands more people will be turned away from services, including nearly 500 from winter shelter, and nearly 1,400 who won’t get housing retention services or assistance to secure Social Security benefits.
But what is more difficult to quantify are the numbers of those who haven’t hit the bottom yet. The city estimates that the number of households who are “doubled up” to make ends meet is four times the numbers on the streets or shelters. In the last one-night homeless count, the number of unsheltered families had increased by
35 percent since 2009.
Liesl Wendt is the CEO of 211Info, a central call center for social services, which receives $240,000 for the referral service, the Housing Connections website and for severe weather shelter. Last year, her organization received nearly 28,000 calls for referrals related to housing issues from Portland residents alone. The top three needs were energy assistance, rent assistance and shelter.
“I’m worried because I don’t think people realize how thin the safety net has gotten over the past couple of years,” Wendt says.
“We’re hearing from more and more people who don’t know what to ask for, who have not accessed services before, who don’t understand the complexity of asking for a few dollars to keep their lights on. More people are tumbling into the chaos of what being low-income is in our community,” Wendt says. “We hear from people who are trying to keep their lights on and stay in their homes. And three weeks out of the month, there aren’t resources available to them for rent or utility assistance. So we make a referral to food pantry. And clients and food pantries tell us that their boxes are getting smaller and smaller because they’ve been deluged by people going there trying to stretch their dollars. People are struggling to pay their bills and put food on their tables for the families. And the safety net is doing everything it can, but there just isn’t enough in it.”
Fish says he’s heading into the budget negotiations with the position that the $4.8 million is secured from the outset, before other requests. “We’re still in a recession,” Fish says. “A lot of people are still hurting. We cannot go backward on our commitment.”
“If you don’t spent the money upstream with short-term rent assistance, you’ll have more people on the streets, in the emergency rooms, and we’ll end up as a community spending more downstream,” Fish says. “If we don’t invest in homebuyers, we’ll have more in foreclosure. If we don’t invest in shelter and emergency services, more people will be put at risk on the streets, and that leads to a spiral. The $4.8 million is a modest investment. If we don’t make that investment we’re going to pay substantially more downstream.”
Another dynamic in the budget cycle this year is the fact that at least two members of City Council, Adams and Randy Leonard — who corner the public safety budgets on the council — will be out of office after this year, leaving the completion of their budgets to new office holders.
This is the first in what will be many of years budget declines for the bureau as the tax increment financing revenues from urban renewal districts drop to a fraction of their value. This prompts the question of where new revenue will come from. To that, Fish suggested a larger community discussion and even a decision by voters.
“We’re going to have to find a way to deal with that structural problem,” Fish says. “We’re going to have to go to voters for that support.”
Sidebar: The Safety Net
Of its total budget request of $91,471,065, the Portland Housing Bureau is asking for $4.8 million in one-time funding, which is at the discretion of the mayor’s office.
Here’s what the net is trying to hold on to:
Homelessness Prevention and Rapid-Rehousing: $1.9 million
This is for short-term rent assistance to prevent eviction and keep epople housed during a difficult transition. Usually a few months of assistance, it money that is flexible and rapidly disbursed to keep people from losing their housing and becoming homeless.
Housing Access Services: $456,300
This includes programs that provide information and referral, adovocacy and case management for low-income renters faced with homelessness, eviction, housing discrminiation and unhealthy housing conditions. This often assists hard-to-house individuals, including people with rental screening barriers such as poor credit, evictions and criminal history.
Shelter and emergency services: $1.734 million
This pays for the three types of shelter services: year-round, winter and severe weather. This money is paired with funding and resources from Multnomah County, Home Forward and other nonprofit partners to provide shelter to hundreds of people on the streets. It also pairs with programs to provide social, health and employment services and help people connect with housing opportunities.
Bud Clark Commons: $185,000
This is a reduction from last year’s budget (down from $390,000). The building, which houses Transition Projects day and shelter services and Home Forward’s housing program, opened this past June as the city’s flagship shelter and service facility. In its first six months, the facility reported serving 4,300 people С an average of 600 daily visitors seeking basic needs and services. The city reports that nearly 300 people have found permanent homes through the Day Center since it opened.
Homeownership Programs: $500,000
This supports homebuyer education, counseling and foreclosure prevention programs. The program is targeted for minority communities as part of the bureaus emphasis on minority homeownership. The funds are levereged with other sources to provide down payment assistance to qualifying households.
To read the Street Roots editorial go here.
To get involved in the Portland safety net campaign go here.