HOMELESSNESS IN PORTLAND may not be unique to Old Town, but the neighborhood is well known as Portland's primary homeless district. It's a neighborhood and a situation that was created more than a century ago by simultaneous forces—economic and social—working in concert. And while the types of homelessness that were prevalent at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s differed slightly from our modern version, the decisions that were made back then built the Old Town of today.

City of Transients

From its incorporation in 1851 until around World War II, Portland's early industries, like logging and agriculture, relied on a large influx of low-skilled manual laborers who performed dangerous, difficult work. Most of these workers were young, single men living from job to temporary job.

This transient workforce didn't sign lease agreements or acquire mortgages. Instead, they lived in smaller, cheaper housing units such as residential hotels.

"If you go back through the history of Portland, we had thousands of single-room occupancy units," says Ed Blackburn, executive director of Central City Concern. "A lot of West Coast cities did—and that's largely due to their ports and natural resource industries."

However, the area now referred to as Old Town (previously known as the North End, Whitechapel, and Couch's Addition) wasn't the only hub for low-income lodging and transient labor in Portland. Before the Lownsdale area became populated with buildings like Portland City Hall and the Keller Auditorium, it was a very different sort of neighborhood. Just north of where South Waterfront is today, Lownsdale was brimming with cheap housing, European immigrants, hotels, and saloons. Unlike Old Town, which is still with us, this second low-income district fell victim to aggressive urban renewal policies in the 1950s. New structures like the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building replaced what had once been an affordable, vibrant neighborhood.

According to Carl Abbott—professor emeritus of urban studies at Portland State University (PSU) and author of several books about Portland—the two lower-income neighborhoods (Old Town and Lownsdale) flanked downtown like bookends. 

"That's where you'd find the cheap hotels and the flophouses," Abbott says, "as well as the saloons, gambling halls, and stores specializing in selling work clothes and equipment, often used."

Abbott says these two neighborhoods were heavily populated with temporary day laborers—not unlike the informal work-seekers of modern times.

Saloons and Hotels

Most of the businesses in Old Town and Lownsdale catered to that large transient population—who also enjoyed the proliferation of bars and other industries of vice. According to Blackburn, Portland had approximately one saloon for every 70 inhabitants in 1890, and a heavy concentration were located in what is now Old Town.

"It became known by the 1890s as Skid Row," says Chet Orloff, an adjunct professor of urban studies at PSU. "However, in the 19th century, 'skid row' had a slightly different connotation. It was more of a workers' place."

Orloff says that at the time, Portland's transient workers weren't commonly referred to as "homeless." While a large percentage may have been without a permanent residence, they weren't necessarily destitute.

"[During this period] there were relatively few people sleeping on the streets," says Abbott.

"The Social Gospel"

Back in those days, a city like Portland (and a district like Old Town) attracted a certain preponderance of drinking, gambling, prostitution, and various vices. It also attracted a certain level of ideological competition in the form of anti-alcohol and anti-vice crusaders.

"In the early 19th century, something called the 'social gospel' began to take form," says Orloff. "It was a combination of religious, anti-alcohol, and social service movements. It continued on into the 20th century and, in many ways, is still with us today."

The Salvation Army had been a fixture of Old Town since the 1880s, but the organization and the Union Gospel Mission began to take on bigger roles in the neighborhood in the 1910s and '20s.

"It was a poorly housed, unchurched population," Abbott says. "[With these organizations] they'd get a meal and a sermon."

Modern social service programs didn't come along until much later, and Portland politics in the early 20th century tended toward the conservative. For this reason, public aid for low-income populations was often not available.

"Portland was such a stick in the mud during the early 1930s," Orloff says. "[We didn't receive] the kinds of social services the New Deal was providing for unemployed people in other cities. The mayor and the city council refused to accept the grants and funds being provided by federal agencies—at least for the first couple of years of the Depression.

"Finally, by about 1935," Orloff continues, "the pressures were such that Portland began accepting federal public dollars. But until then, we were never a great example of a city that provided services."

Decades passed, and eventually government-funded social service and aid organizations started serving the population of Old Town—but took their cue from the earlier private institutions.

"By the 1960s and 1970s," Orloff says, "those [earlier] practices become hardened into policy as the city began to establish its own publicly funded social service agencies in Old Town. Practice evolves into policy."

Nothing to Do... and Nowhere to Go

After WWII, Oregon's economy changed, and manual day labor became less and less important. These types of day jobs still existed, but weren't plentiful enough to sustain the population that previously relied on them.

"Demand for unskilled workers went down," Abbott says. "This led to an aging population of people in the Old Town area... a population increasingly detached from the labor market."

As Portland's early transient population grew older and lost their jobs, their homes were next to go.

"When we got into the 1950s, a lot of those [single-room occupancy] hotels started coming down," says Blackburn, referring to hotels that had served the low-income working population. "They were being replaced by offices and higher-income apartment buildings."

Soon residential hotels, which had once housed a significant chunk of this city's citizenry, became little more than a curiosity.

Lownsdale, Portland's other low-income neighborhood, underwent a massive rehaul in the 1950s that gave Portland its South Auditorium District. The contentious and controversial urban renewal project displaced hundreds of residents and businesses, which left Old Town as Portland's lone historic skid row district.


In the last half of the 20th century, social service institutions that once served transient laborers and down-and-out ex-loggers now had a new demographic to serve: people who had been released from state-run mental hospitals.

"In the '70s and '80s, you had the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill—another population detached from the labor market," says Abbott. "That's when I think skid row turned into a homeless district. Previously, it had been a bunch of poor guys, economically marginalized, but still participating in the labor force and served by vice institutions.... It eventually evolved into a district where you have a concentration of homeless folks."

According to Abbott and Blackburn, deinstitutionalization created a population that was even more estranged from the traditional economy than transient laborers, who were at least occasionally employed and housed. This new population of previously hospitalized people were less fortunate. Many couldn't work, and even if they could, manual labor jobs had gone away. And housing, like residential hotels that could have served this very low-income population, were being phased out.

"This deinstitutionalization happened at a very strong and consistent pace," says Blackburn, "but the community resources that were supposed to arrive didn't happen—at least not to the extent that had originally been promised."

According to Abbott and Blackburn, this new population dramatically changed the character of Old Town.

No House for You!

With the decline of residential hotels in Portland, the bottom had fallen out of the housing market. Low-income people simply didn't have as many options as before. At the same time, new housing regulations found ways to deny people.

"By the mid-'90s and early 2000s we saw people coming out of many years of incarceration," says Blackburn. "At the same time, employers and landlords were growing more sophisticated—for example, doing background checks—and a lot of these [former prisoners] were excluded. This was also the case with [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] housing, in regard to who could qualify."

The same time period coincided with a shift away from federally funded low-income housing, to housing vouchers.

"That in itself wasn't a bad move," says Blackburn. "It's that the city didn't build more units."

This lack of housing dogs Portland to this day. The units simply aren't there to hold the population.

"The average new apartment is $1,900 a month," says Blackburn. "You can't fight homelessness with that. Even if it's overbuilt, and the price has come down by 10 percent, you're still not getting close."


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