A coalition of homeless service providers and unhoused Portlanders have announced a mission to get 3,000 homeless Portlanders into permanent housing by the end of 2022. The campaign, detailed at a Thursday morning press conference, is a direct response to Mayor Ted Wheeler's recent slate of executive orders meant to address the city's homeless camping issues.
"Mayor Wheeler has been issuing executive orders, including the notion of creating mass shelters with threats of enforcement," said Street Roots program coordinator DeVon Pouncey at the press conference. "These plans only increase racial disparities, intensify trauma, cost millions, and do not add a single unit of housing. We're here today to say we can do better than that."
The coalition calls their campaign the "3,000 Challenge," and has created an online petition to garner support. Coalition members—including Street Roots, Urban League of Portland, Portland Homeless Family Solutions, Northwest Pilot Project, JOIN, Human Solutions, and others—referenced a draft proposal penned by Wheeler aide Sam Adams that suggested relocating unhoused Portlanders into three 1,000-person shelters. Speakers urged both public and private sector leaders to work together to prioritize funding housing over shelter to permanently address Portland's homeless crisis.
"Before we invest in moving people locked outside into unworkable, temporary solutions, let's reinvest in unlocking more of the doors of affordable housing," said Andy Miller, director of homeless shelter operator Human Solutions.
The coalition pointed to three solutions that would help expedite this mission: First, helping unhoused people afford market-rate apartments with rent support payments or vouchers; Second, purchasing entire residential properties or motels that are sitting empty and turning them into affordable housing; Third, making sure the current affordable rental units available with public funds are truly affordable and easy to apply for. To be successful, this plan would need buy-in from private landlords, private donors, policymakers, and social service providers.
Some of this work is already being accomplished with funding through the Metro Supportive Housing Services (SHS) fund, a bucket of tax money distributed across Portland's three counties to fund supportive housing programs—a term for affordable housing that's paired with outside support services to ensure a person is able to remain housed. Counties received the first annual installment of those funds in July 2021, with Multnomah County securing $52.1 million.
That funding has been promised to support a number of projects, including homeless shelters, rental assistance for market-rate apartments, and support services for residential buildings still under construction. The coalition behind the campaign launched Thursday say they see the SHS funds working in tandem with their mission. Yet, some raised concerns about where the fund dollars were being spent.
Julia Delgado, vice president of Urban League, said that it felt like the county was waiting for new construction to be finished before spending the funds, instead of treating the current crisis as an emergency.
"Of course we need to increase the supply of affordable housing," said Delgado, "But in the meantime, we can use the supportive housing services revenue to use existing market housing that's current available and empty."
Since July 2021, 319 formerly unhoused people have been placed in permanent housing through SHS funding, according to Multnomah County. Nearly half of those individuals are living in already existing market-rate apartments, and having their rent subsidized with SHS funds.
Laura Golino de Lovato, director of Northwest Pilot Project, said that her nonprofit has already placed 25 formerly homeless people into existing housing with SHS funding. But, she said, SHS funding can't be the only source of support.
"It's really about the integration of funding strategies," said de Lovato.
Katrina Holland, director of JOIN, said she knows some leaders want to see SHS dollars going toward shelters instead of permanent housing.
"I don't believe it's with ill intention, I believe it's probably a lack of understanding of how much it actually costs to shelter someone versus placing them in housing and giving them support for a year," said Holland.
Holland explained that the cost of covering rent and support staff for one household made up of previously unhoused tenants costs between $47,000 to $52,000 per year. According to the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, a single person living outside for a year costs taxpayers between $30,000 to $50,000 annually to care for. In comparison, one of Portland's six planned Safe Rest Villages—a city program in the works that will create outdoor shelter to unhoused Portlanders—will house just under 400 people for $20 million a year without creating any permanent housing.
Holland said she has brought this proposal to elected officials at both the county and city level. While Multnomah County appears open to supporting the coalition's mission, Holland said the city has been largely "unresponsive."
Wheeler's office told the Mercury that it hadn't received any inquiries from Holland or other coalition members in regard to the "3,000 Challenge." And a spokesperson for City Commissioner Dan Ryan, whose office oversees Portland's housing and homelessness programs, said Ryan also hadn't been contacted about this new campaign.
"It is important for our community to think big, collaboratively, and work with urgency when it comes to addressing Portland's housing crisis," said Wheeler in an emailed statement. "All options are on the table as my administration continues moving forward with housing initiatives. I'm willing to work with anyone and everyone to find compassionate, safe solutions.”
This news comes a day after Wheeler announced an executive order to streamline the city's homeless services under his office.
Those behind the 3,000 Challenge say they will continue meeting and holding events until their goal is met.
"There's a lot of despair in this city, but we actually have so many ways to do this," said Kaia Sand, director of Street Roots. "The answer is 'Yes.' We're going to say 'Yes' until we get it done... and stay on top of them until they happen."