Task force report on homelessness advances in Portland

PORTLAND – After advocates created a mock shelter in front of City Hall and a crowd packed the balcony of its chambers, the City Council voted unanimously Monday night to accept task force recommendations for reducing homelessness.

For two hours, the council heard public testimony on the sweeping plan. More than 30 city residents, business owners, advocates and people who had been homeless presented sometimes conflicting opinions.

The task force, appointed by the council last year, has made three recommendations:

  • Retool the emergency shelter system by creating a centralized process for assessing homeless people.
  • Build three, 35-unit facilities to rapidly rehouse homeless individuals.
  • And expand case management services to better match the needs of clients.

In addition, the task force of 18 community leaders, business people and homeless advocates, recommended that a smaller group of its members work as a monitoring body as the plan is implemented. This was a new suggestion since a draft of the plan was unveiled in October.

The meeting drew a larger-than-usual turnout after the Portland Community Chamber distributed a memo last week urging caution in adopting the task force recommendations.

Chamber lobbyist Chris O’Neil told the council that the chamber, like the task force, does not support residency requirements for homeless services. He called the requirements "at best impractical, and at worst inhumane."

But he said the city should pursue a regional approach to the problem that would avoid making Portland an "attractive destination" for homeless individuals from other areas.

"The problem of homelessness is much larger than a few blocks of downtown," he said.

The chamber’s 11-page memo called the city a "magnet for homeless" and said, "The Chamber certainly would not condone ‘hassling’ visitors, but we welcome a conversation about what Portland can do to become less attractive."

Preble Street advocate Donna Yellen told the council that thinking of Portland as a magnet for homeless individuals is "intellectually lazy." The attraction of the city or its social services has nothing to do with the problem, she said.

"Homelessness is awful, and it’s just plain wrong to claim otherwise," she said.

Yellen’s remarks drew applause from the standing-room-only audience, prompting Mayor Michael Brennan to warn that such demonstrations are not permitted at council meetings.

Before the meeting, Yellen and other homeless advocates simulated a shelter by placing thin, vinyl-covered mats and plastic chairs on the sidewalk outside City Hall. Signs asked passers-by "would you sleep here?" as dozens of people gathered, wearing tags that urged support of the task force.

As she concluded her remarks, Yellen said she had to go return the mats and chairs to the city’s Oxford Street shelter.

In addition to business advocates, residents of the Bayside neighborhood also said the city should avoid concentrating homeless services and facilities in one area.

"(Bayside) is at the epicenter of behavioral health problems, of which homelessness is only a part," said Steve Hirshon, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. "You can’t ask one neighborhood to bear the brunt of a lot of issues that affect the entire state."

Other speakers described drug use, public drinking and other behavior they associated with the neighborhood’s homeless population.

But Tom Ptacek, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice and a member of the task force, said he "never once" engaged in those behaviors while being homeless for a year. "And I was a fair representation of the vast majority of the homeless population in Portland," he said.

Problem behavior isn’t unique to areas with homeless populations, and public drinking and urination is also common in the Old Port, said Maurice Selinger, president of Preble Street’s board of directors.

After public remarks ended, task force member Councilor John Anton praised the recommendations as a "road map" where the city previously had no clear plan for dealing with homelessness.

"We’ve been living in crisis for 25 years … what we’re talking about now is a how we might do things differently," Anton said.

The only policy for responding to the problem has been a policy of not turning away anyone who sought shelter in Portland. That policy, dating to 1987, has been "assumed but not debated," Anne Pringle, a former mayor and councilor, told the council.

Since the 1980s, homelessness has grown in Portland, with an average of more than 440 people seeking housing in shelters at night this summer.

Implementing the plan’s recommendations will be "both ambitious and expensive," the task force said in its report. But the city also would achieve savings by reducing the need for shelter stays, emergency room visits, jail stays, mental health hospitalizations and other functions.

The task force estimates those potential savings at more than $2.2 million annually.

But before implementation can begin, the council’s committees must take a closer look.

The Housing and Community Development Committee will examine details of the recommendation for new housing, while the recommendations for centralizing the intake process and expanding case management were referred to the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.

Brennan said he expects the committees to return to the council with their thoughts by May.

In the meantime, he said, "I’m very pleased that we’ve found a lot of common ground."