Plan offers ways to aid Portland's homeless

PORTLAND – The city’s Health and Human Services Department is recommending that Portland establish housing where homeless people can stay sober, develop a team of specialists to help the homeless find housing and hire more workers to interview people who enter shelters.

That action plan, to be presented Tuesday night to the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, would cost almost $1 million. The recommendations are based on a report issued in November by the city’s Task Force to Develop a Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

"These are just ideas that my staff came up with" after reviewing the report," said Doug Gardner, director of the Health and Human Services Department. "They are not set in stone."

It ultimately will be up to the City Council to decide whether any of the proposals are worthy of funding, but city officials say state funds could be available.

The 18-member task force was formed by the City Council in 2011 to examine the issue of homelessness and develop ways to prevent it. The council accepted the task force’s report in November 2012 but didn’t act, opting instead to have its committees review the proposals in depth.

The Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, has four proposals to consider:

• Develop temporary housing for homeless people who have been through detox or recovery programs and want to live in an environment where they can continue to work on staying sober. Estimated startup cost: $250,000.

• Develop a team of five to seven workers who would interview people as they enter a shelter to find out where they have been living, why they are homeless, whether they are eligible for welfare benefits, and whether they have medical issues, among other things. Under the current system, it can take as long as two days before those interviews can be done, because of staffing shortages. Estimated cost: $250,000 to $350,000.

• Hire a team of five housing specialists to work in shelters. The team would help people apply for apartments. Estimated cost: $250,000.

• Hire two people to give budgeting advice to homeless people who have some type of income. About 40 percent of the people who use the Oxford Street Shelter get some form of financial assistance. Estimated cost: $77,000.

Mark Swann, director of the Preble Street Resource Center, said he likes all of the task force’s recommendations and is particularly interested in having a sober house program.

Two weeks ago, when temperatures fell to near zero, Preble Street served 512 dinners to homeless people in one night, a record for the soup kitchen, which typically serves 350 dinners a night.

"I have never seen anything like it in all my years," said Swann, who plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting. "I get asked all the time, "’Is (homelessness) going to get worse?’" I have to tell them I just don’t know. That’s what is really scary."