Commissioner Nick Fish in The Oregonian, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017
During a recent winter storm, Karen Lee Batts died of hypothermia. She had a history of mental illness and was found alone in a downtown parking garage. That night, a winter shelter near the garage was open and had room for her.
Her tragic death was not an isolated event. In 2015, 88 homeless men and women died in Multnomah County. Roughly 1,800 men, women and children continue to live on our streets each night. Thousands more are in our shelters. Many are struggling with mental illness and addiction. After each death, we ask the same question: What can we do to save more lives?
The time has come to move from soul-searching to action, based on what we know works. For people experiencing homelessness that is chronic and persistent, there is a nationally recognized solution. Permanent supportive housing combines deeply affordable housing with client-centered supportive services. It is a cost-effective, proven approach to reducing chronic homelessness.
Case in point: The successful Portland-Multnomah County effort to end veteran's homelessness. The federal government was a key partner, issuing vouchers that covered the cost of rent assistance and services provided by the Veteran's Administration.
As The Oregonian/OregonLive explained in an editorial: "The same spirit of cooperation that has made a meaningful difference in the lives of hundreds of veterans could also be applied to other disadvantaged groups. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to narrow the focus, create the right partnerships, and make the best possible use of resources already at your disposal."
Here is the difficult truth. Many chronically homeless people won't access a shelter and are unable to be successful tenants. They have unique needs for both affordable rental housing and intensive services. Depending on the person, it could include mental health therapy, drug and alcohol treatment and employment counseling.
Supportive housing improves outcomes and is cost-effective. For too many people living on our streets, the police serve as case workers, the fire department provides ambulance services, and emergency rooms handle basic health care. It is the most expensive, least efficient system ever devised.
By contrast, it costs less to invest upstream in improving mental and physical health than it is to subsidize expensive inpatient mental health care and hospitalization. Healthy clients are more likely to become stable tenants and productive members of our community.
According to a recent study, we are short around 1,800 units of permanent supportive housing. That is a big number and will require a coordinated effort by every level of government, local nonprofits and health care providers.
Since the Portland City Council declared a "state of emergency" to address our housing crisis, we have responded with urgency. Portland voters approved a $260 million housing bond. The Council implemented inclusionary zoning, and increased funding for rent assistance and shelters. The city and county created a new Joint Office of Homeless Services, streamlining the delivery of services. Recently, we adopted historic new renter protections.
The community has stepped up, too. Hospitals are working with nonprofits to expand access to treatment. Local developers are pitching new public-private partnerships. Recently opened is the Unity Center, dedicated to serving people experiencing a mental health crisis.
But still we need to do more. It is time to prioritize the hundreds of very poor, vulnerable families and adults who are at greatest risk.
On Tuesday, the city and county will hold a joint work session to review the promising work of A Home for Everyone. I will propose that we make a longterm commitment to build and fund an additional 2,000 units of permanent supportive housing. We need to set a hard goal of 200 units a year, with a plan to meet our goal in 10 years. It won't be cheap. But continued failure is even more expensive.
A community that came together to protect our veterans can significantly reduce chronic homelessness. It will require leadership, focus, hard choices and collaboration.
We are too late to save Ms. Batts. But we can save hundreds of other lives.
Nick Fish is a Portland City Commissioner.