IN ITS ONGOING struggles with homelessness, Portland can take solace in one thing: It's not us—it's the West Coast.
According to a new report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Oregon's homeless population rose by nearly nine percent over the last year. Washington saw an uptick of 5.3 percent. California's population grew by 1.6 percent (which amounts to nearly 1,800 people—greater than the increases in Oregon or Washington).
Meanwhile, nationwide homelessness fell by around 2 percent.
"The West Coast data is different than the national data," says Matthew Doherty, executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, a coalition of high-ranking federal officials that works to fight the problem.
"You're seeing increases in unsheltered homelessness," adds Ann Marie Oliva, a HUD deputy assistant secretary. "That's alarming."
This won't exactly be news to Portlanders, who've watched Multnomah County's homeless population grow slightly even as more people than ever are being helped off the streets ["Cutting Homelessness in Half," Feature, Nov 18]. Right now, the city's in the midst of a self-described housing "state of emergency," and is pledging to work with county leaders to spend an additional $30 million on fighting homelessness in the next year.
But here's the problem—highlighted by a meeting of prominent West Coast mayors that took place in Portland last week: Our neighbors throwing a ton of money at the issue aren't having much success.
"We are mayors of the most innovative cities in America, if not the world," Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said December 10, appearing with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and the mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Eugene at a West Coast mayors' summit in Portland. "Despite that, we are all facing incredible challenges."
The case Murray presents should worry Portland. Seattle's the 20th largest city in the country, but ranks far higher in the amount of shelter capacity it provides, its spending on homelessness, and the number of units it's built in the last decade—things Portland is working hard to increase.
According to Murray, Seattle and King County are third in the nation for all three measures. Even so, homelessness in King County rose 21 percent in the last year.
"The problem only grows greater," Murray said at a press conference. "Despite being leaders in homelessness, something's not working."
The notion was echoed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose balmy city has the largest homeless population in the country—more than 41,000 people. Los Angeles has proposed spending $100 million on its own housing emergency.
San Francisco spends $220 million a year fighting homelessness, but struggles to decrease the 6,775 homeless people living there, said the city's mayor, Ed Lee.
"One of the things we understand is we don't understand enough," Garcetti said. "We don't have a lot of deep work to understand the nuance of the population."
That's potentially set to change. One of the relatively few concrete things to come from the first-of-its-kind mayors' summit was a pledge that the cities will pool their resources to research the homeless people on their streets.
The project, as envisioned, goes beyond figures tabulated at the direction of HUD. Those federal reports can tell you approximately how many veterans or families are on your city's street, for instance, but not how they became homeless, or if they struggle with substance abuse.
The effort announced last week comes with more questions than certainties. Hales and the mayors he'd gathered couldn't say when it would occur, or where, or how much it might cost—just that they wanted to do it.
"There's something here that we don't know," Murray said. "Unless we understand it better, I don't think we're going to be able to get a handle on the solution."
That's perhaps not the most-heartening thing to hear when Portland local governments are getting ready to throw tens of millions more at easing homelessness. Even as Hales announces Portland needs more data, he's relying on a local coalition—A Home for Everyone—that says it's used the most data-driven approach in Portland's history to come up with a new plan for slashing homelessness.
Marc Jolin, who directs A Home for Everyone, says that plan's valid. Sure, the group could stand to learn more about the city's homeless people, Jolin says—particularly how they enter the system in the first place—but nothing that arose from the mayors' summit changed the basic facts: Portland needs more affordable housing, and more housing options that provide social services.
And to get it, both Jolin and the mayors fall back on a timeworn refrain: We need more money from the feds.
"We're all adopting what we regarded as best practices," Jolin says. "As good as that can be, we're not going to get anywhere if there's not some significant increase in federal investments."
According to numbers provided by the Portland Housing Bureau, money coming to the city from several crucial HUD programs decreased by nearly 33 percent since 2001, to a little under $12.5 million. Other funding has increased in recent years—most notably rental vouchers for homeless veterans. But if there was any one (predictable) theme to emerge from the mayoral summit, it's that it's not nearly enough. Particularly not in this part of the country.
"This was really a historic moment," Garcetti, the LA mayor, said during his visit. "We can definitely say that the West Coast is leading now in pushing the urgency of this problem."