Preble Street election forum draws four Portland City Council candidates

PORTLAND – You don’t need a home to vote.

That was the message at a candidates forum held Oct. 11 by Homeless Voices for Justice, the advocacy campaign affiliated with Preble Street Resource Center.

Four of the seven candidates for City Council participated to answer questions from about two dozen people, including individuals who described their own experience with homelessness.

Candidates and attendees agreed that many of the problems associated with homelessness are related to challenges affecting the entire city. One of them is the lack of affordable housing.

"What do we do to make sure everyone has a place to go, and that Portland isn’t just a playground for the rich?" asked Wells Lyons, who’s running for the at-large seat held by Councilor John Anton. Anton is not seeking re-election.

"We have to look at how we can increase housing stock, so that people can afford to live here," Lyons said. "And we need to look for solutions that connect everyone who wants to work with jobs that are out there."

Lyons suggested the creation of a tax credit for employers that "hire someone whose address is right here, someone who is homeless or recently homeless."

Chris Schorr, running for another at-large seat against incumbent Councilor Jill Duson and challenger Greg Smaha, agreed with the need for more affordable housing. Schorr suggested the use of tax credits to spur conversion of existing property into low-cost residences.

"I see housing as not just an economic problem, but a social justice problem," he said.

Jon Hinck, who is opposing Lyons, discussed how city operations could be changed to improve services for those in need. For example, he said, a recently repealed city fee on food pantries should never have been implemented in the first place.

"When you have something that’s going to help people, and you know there’s a need, you don’t want to be putting up barriers," Hinck said. "There shouldn’t have to be a two-step process like this."

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who is seeking re-election in District 3 against challenger Gregory Blouin, discussed the need for one-on-one services to help people overcome obstacles to employment. He said the city recently launched a $400,000 program to provide job training and help individuals deal with barriers such as lack of computer skills.

"We all need help, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and we all need partners to help us out," Suslovic said. "But it’s one person at a time. We have to be flexible enough to meet the needs of the individual."

A middle-aged man in the audience, who did not give his name, agreed with Suslovic about the need for one-on-one help, especially for individuals recovering from addiction.

"Housing’s a big issue, food’s a big issue, but we also need someone to go to and talk," he said. "When you can’t talk, you crawl into a shell, you take drugs. I see it every day. All these people actually have a voice, but they aren’t being heard."

Preble Street has invited any homeless person in Portland who wants to register to vote to use the address of the resource center, 5 Portland St. Preble Street is also providing homeless individuals with forms that can be used in place of identification at voting sites.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.