Portland officials outline progress made in housing homeless

On the same day that a ban on panhandling in medians went into effect in Portland, city leaders and organizations that work with the homeless held a press conference applauding the progress they’ve made in providing housing for those living on the streets. As Patty Wight reports, city officials say there’s been a 30 percent increase in housing placements for homeless adults this year. 

Before Thursday, those driving along some of the busier streets of Portland were often confronted head on with the issue of homelessness, as the number of people panhandling on medians spiked. Last summer, there was such a high demand for homeless beds in Portland that the general assistance office opened its doors to take overflow from shelters.

So when a task force presented the city with strategies to prevent and end homelessness last fall, Mayor Michael Brennan says the city took action.

"It’s relatively easy to get people a mat to sleep on or a boxed lunch. But to get to the next step of providing the permanent housing, providing the employment opportunity and more economic security, that’s obviously more difficult," Brennan says. "And that’s the challenge that we want to take on at this point."

One key strategy is finding more housing for the homeless, and faster. City officials say this is happening in a number of ways, including a commitment from The Portland Housing Authority to dedicate 40 housing vouchers for the chronically homeless.

Jon Bradley of the Preble Street Resource Center, which provides services for the homeless, says these are the most challenging people to help because they often have persistent mental illness and substance abuse problems.

"If you can get 40 people who are at the shelter, probably every night – or 30 out of 40 – that’s going to really cut into your numbers every night," he says, "because most people are in and out, but those people are there every night. So that’s why we’re focused on them so heavily."

Another strategy is to use a different housing model for the homeless.

"It’s called a scattered site approach," says Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street. He says the scattered site approach uses exisiting private housing, as opposed to a facility-based group setting. "It’s a great way to integrate people into the community in a less stigmatizing way, less stereotyping way." Swann says 300 homeless people have been placed in housing in the past six months, 37 percent outside of Portland.

While finding housing is a clear priority of the plan, so is better case management. Thomas Ptacek knows firsthand just how important this can be. He spent a year homeless living in a shelter. "I was confused, overwhelmed, and needed help," he says. "I didn’t know how to ask for help, or even what to ask for."

A number of organizations are working together to provide more comprehensive case management. There are outreach teams who canvass the city six days a week to establish relationships with the homeless and help them get the services they need. There are teams in the shelters themselves. And there are social workers who provide support once someone is in housing, all with the ultimate goal of job training and placement.

Ptacek says this kind of help is critical. "For me, and for many people I know, the first few months in an apartment are the hardest, sometimes even harder than living in the shelter," he says. "Continued case management is critical in preventing homelessness, and is something I wish was available when I got my apartment."

Many organizations have come together to implement these strategies, including police and fire departments, the Portland Regional Chamber, and United Way. Mayor Michael Brennan says in some ways, they had no choice, given shrinking municipal budgets.

"You bring in more resources by bringing in more people, more organizations, and you collaborate," he says. "And it’s really the only strategy that you can have when there aren’t as many resources available at the state and federal level."

Despite the progress, officials said that the city can’t take more funding hits. Advocates called on state and federal lawmakers to provide adequate financial support for housing and service programs.