Townhall brings experts, community together to talk homelessness

Portland State and KATU news hosted a community town hall meeting to discuss homelessness in Portland on Tuesday, Oct.17 in Smith Memorial Student Union. The event was part of PSU’s yearly Portland State of Mind week.

Expert panelists fielded audience questions and suggestions about affordable housing, rent control, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and the impact of homelessness in residential areas.

The final consensus was not surprising: more needs to be done.

However, the specifics of that consensus didn’t sit well with everyone. Toward the end of the one-hour discussion, one disgruntled downtown Portland homeowner asked, “What about us?” to a jeering audience.

PSU has been hosting televised town halls for the last seven years. Present on the panel were Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Dean of PSU and Oregon Health and Science University’s joint School of Public Health Dr. David Bangsberg, Initiative Director of A Home for Everyone Marc Jolin, and Ellie Hayes, a formerly homeless Portlander who now works at a local shelter.

Audience members ranged from those currently experiencing homelessness to neighborhood association members worried about their kids’ safety, to homeless advocates and PSU student activists.

PSU President Dr. Rahmat Shoureshi kicked off the event with by discussing numbers regarding homelessness. In the 2017 federal Point-in-Time homeless survey, as analyzed by PSU’s College of Urban and Public Affairs, there are at least 4,177 people living on Portland’s streets right now. That’s a 10 percent increase from 2015, “which means the problem is getting worse,” Shoureshi said.

While those numbers have grown over time, “the impact homelessness has had on a person’s life has not changed in the last 20 years,” Jolin said. Jolin also brought up the larger number of people with “significant” disabilities that are now living on the streets in addition to the increasing population of those who are chronically homeless. People who are chronically homeless have been homeless for at least a year or many times over a three-year period.

According to Hayes, long-term homelessness causes children stress at school, “long-term trauma,” and “makes it hard for kids to be able to connect with people and connect in their schools and their communities.”

Further, added Bangsberg, a new homeless population has emerged in the last several years. “We have seen a doubling in the number of people who are homeless that are 55 or older,” Bansgberg said.

Bangsberg explained how this new homeless population might “work service industry jobs, [do] not have pensions, [have] not been able to save enough for retirement, [or] have an illness or some life event that makes them fall behind on bills.”

“Once they’re on the streets,” Bangsberg added, “their mental health deteriorates, [and] they may use substances.”

Panelists stressed that a multi-level approach from community members, government and businesses is what the city needs to solve the housing crisis. The overarching need, however, is more permanent housing.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has signaled a shift away from increasing shelter beds and toward funding more permanent, affordable housing in the city.

But some community members want faster answers.

TJ, an audience member who is part of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association, said in the last two weeks she has picked up 31 used syringes from the Laurelhurst Park playground.

“We can’t have the collateral damage to our children’s safety,” TJ stated. She explained that she has heard a lot of talk about affordable housing but not enough about addiction and mental health treatment. TJ pointed to mobile mental health centers and safe injection sites in other cities as possible solutions.

“I understand the safety concern,” Bangsberg said. However, mental health and addiction treatment services “are best delivered with a stable place to live, linked with intense case management and vocational services,” Bangsberg added. 

“Addiction, mental illness and poverty are not crimes,” Bangsberg stressed. “When you’re homeless, you’re struggling and in pain.”

According to Bangsberg, the United States’ federal funding for affordable housing has fallen since the 1980s. This brought up audience questions about private businesses’ responsibilities in subsidizing affordable housing, zoning requirements and rent control.

Kafoury said Portland City Council was slated to vote on a new measure that would add 2,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years. This comes in addition to the $258 million affordable housing bond Portlanders voted for last November. The council will begin voting on the specifics of that bond next week.

As for rent control, Kafoury said someone has brought the issue of capping rents to the Oregon Legislature almost every session for the last 15 years.

“Unfortunately the market forces are so strong right now that holding down rents for some people while rents are going up for other people [would] create a whole other set of issues,” Kafoury said.

While other audience members brought up solutions like sleeping pods and safe rest areas like those in Eugene, Hayes reminded the crowd why permanent housing mattered most to those struggling with homelessness.

“You could be living in a shelter and you can be living at rest places…but that’s not going to get you really what you need,” Hayes said. “You need to be housed so that you can have a point of reference, [a] place to come back to, and your own little space to be able to work from.”

When an audience member complained that homeless people “don’t pay taxes” to the dismay of many in the room, Hayes responded again.

“I didn’t pay taxes when I was homeless,” Hayes said, but the “wrap-around services” in the community allowed her to keep her baby, graduate college, and now, give back to the community.

While services such as the 211 information line, winter warming and summer cooling shelters, and mobile mental health services are always available, Jolin said such resources are often overstretched.  

That’s why, said Kafoury, “we need to be big and we need to be bold. [I] need you all to demand from your government and demand from your business community and demand from your neighbors that…we need supportive housing and supportive services for the people that are suffering on the streets.”

When asked if she believed Portland would solve its housing crisis, Hayes said, “I have absolute faith that this is solvable. If I didn’t think it was fixable, I wouldn’t be here.”