Mayor Wheeler's Remarks on League of Oregon Cities - 9/29
“We are told the homeless situation in our city is out of control. We are told that we caused it. We are told that we aren’t doing a damn thing about it. We are told we are attracting homeless people from all over the place. We are told the homeless are wrecking our community.”
Talking about Portland? Think again. This is a summary of comments made today by a community leader from Lebanon, Oregon.
This week, I went to Eugene for the League of Oregon Cities’ conference on homelessness. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel that included Mayors Cathy Clark from Keizer, Royce Embanks from Madras, Lucy Vinis from Eugene, and Arline LaMear from Astoria. I also attended sessions and watched videos that featured leaders from cities all across Oregon.
The main takeaway: Homelessness isn’t just a Portland problem. Not by any stretch. It is a growing, and urgent problem that will require our very best collective efforts to solve.
On one hand, it was concerning to hear from my colleagues how significant, and widespread this issue has become in Oregon and all across the country. This is something we already knew—but to hear firsthand was alarming. It is rapidly becoming the issue, as it already is in Portland. But I was also encouraged: Cities are working together and sharing ideas, best practices, and new innovative approaches to help solve the problems associated with homelessness.
From Tigard to Central Point to Lebanon, and to The Dalles, the problem of homelessness is a central and growing issue. It knows no boundaries. It has no party affiliation. It has taken hold in cities large and small. I learned about highly innovative initiatives around the state, like Madras’ “Our Community in the Park” program. Or the “Helping Hands” program in Astoria, the regional data collection initiative in the Salem-Keizer area; and the Operation 365 effort focused on getting veterans off the street in Eugene. Communities are coming together and progress is being made.
I also learned that as significant as our homeless situation is in Portland, leaders from all across Oregon look to Portland and Multnomah County for leadership on this issue. They are counting on us to lead the way. In many respects, we have a head start. Portland and Multnomah County have about 1500 shelter beds, for example. By comparison, I learned that other communities around the state and in the Metro region have little if any year-around shelter to meet the needs of their homeless adult populations. It was made clear to me at our gathering that we have a need for a statewide agenda, which includes cities big and small.
Shelter is only a part of our plan. We also focus on prevention, social services and housing. Last year, Portland and Multnomah County provided homeless prevention services to 6,000 people who were on the verge of homelessness. We moved just under 6,000 people from the streets into permanent housing. Over 8500 people visited a homeless shelter in Portland or Multnomah County last year, and we have increased the number of shelter beds markedly in recent years. Last year, nearly 35,000 people received some form of assistance through the Joint Office. If the Joint Office were a city in Oregon, it would be one of the largest, based on population served. Our voter-approved Portland Housing Bond has already helped us lay the foundation for hundreds of units of supportive housing which will get our most chronically homeless residents off the streets.
While there are many innovative programs all across the state, our city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services is seen by many around the region as a successful model of cooperation and coordinated budgeting. I was happy to share our results to the conference. Last year, Portland and Multnomah County spent a collective $72 million (local, state and federal funds) on homeless prevention, shelter, transition services, and other services to help people get off and stay off the streets (including mental health, addiction, domestic violence, and youth services). This number was met with audible gasps by some in the audience that just don’t have access to these amounts of resources, but consider this: San Francisco, which has a population about one-third larger than Portland, spent $241 million on homelessness last year.
Cities in Oregon will continue to lead on this issue. It is a large issue; it is a complex issue, and as Mayor, I am approaching it with a sense of urgency. We can solve homelessness. But cities must work in partnership with the state and federal government, the private sector, nonprofits, the faith community and others for the best results.