"When activism first addressed (homelessness), it was an anti-poverty item," explained Heather Lyons, who helps coordinate homeless projects for the city. "That restricted creativity and didn't adequately address the needs of people on the street."
Over the past twenty years, a host of services addressing addictions, job retention, and mental health have slowly evolved. But city officials admit that, even though spending on homelessness has increased from $300,000 in 1986 to a current $5 million annually, the homeless population in the city has not ebbed. On any given night, it is estimated that 2,000 single adults are without a home.
On Wednesday, a consortium of city-sponsored homeless social services will present the City Council with plans and promises designed to eradicate homelessness in Portland; the report is called "Homeless Single Adult System Enhancement Plan." This optimism and pledged commitment to work together stems from a year-long study between the city's six largest agencies. The presentation is not intended to be voted on by City Council; instead, offers Lyons, "the idea is simply to show what (City Council) is getting for their money."
Portland has a unique system in which the city contracts with independent social service agencies to manage various issues, from providing shelter to offering job training. The goal of such a division-of-labor system is that the sum will be greater than its parts. But, according to homeless advocates, this system of sub-contracting also creates a fundamental flaw: To cover their various needs, a homeless person must visit several different organizations.
"It can be a vicious cycle: Someone may go to a homeless facility, only to be sent to a mental health hospital and then back again," explains Lyons. "There is a disconnect between the system."
Moreover, services in the area are split between the city and the county. Organizations like JOIN and Central City Concern are sponsored by the city to help single homeless adults, but Multnomah County pays for services for homeless youth and families.
The Enhancement Plan being presented on Wednesday--and the monthly meetings since June 2000 to draft it--represent the first wide-scale attempt to draw together these individual fiefdoms into a consolidated program. The Plan's goals are simple: "strengthen collaboration" and "share responsibility for system outcomes." The remedial nature of these stated goals indicates that the participating organizations are only just starting--and, moreover, have a very long path ahead. But even before the collaboration has officially begun, they are already facing challenges.
Started almost two years ago, the collaboration began in a much more optimistic economic frame of mind. City officials admit that recent funding cuts could easily trigger a scramble between the organizations to insure their slice of the fiscal pie. "We have homeless family (organizations) going against homeless youth (organizations) going against adult services," Lyons says.
Moreover, the change in Portland's economy creates two other external pressures on homeless services. The steadily climbing unemployment rate in Portland is directly linked to the number of homeless adults.
More pressing, say homeless advocates, is the lack of affordable housing in Portland. The Enhancement Plan makes a quick note that only 10,000 rental units exist for 22,000 poverty-level households. Although little comment is given to this statistic in the Enhancement Plan, these figures show the battle that homeless organizations face.
"Changes in the economy have made people a lot crankier," admits Lyons. "Now more than ever we need to come together."
The City Council meeting accepting the Enhancement Plan is open to the public; it will be held on Wednesday at 10 am.