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The math is simple but the results are heartbreaking: The population of the Portland area is increasing far faster than the supply of affordable housing. That’s forcing more and more lower-income families into homelessness for the first time.
Portland is facing, according to Human Solutions Executive Director Andy Miller, “an explosion of family homelessness,” with more and more families discovering they have nowhere to go and being forced to find temporary shelter.
“In the past 12 months we’ve seen the demand for shelter increase by over 100 percent—and that’s profound to me,” said Miller of Human Solutions, which serves Portland and East Multnomah County.
“The summer of 2015 was called ‘the summer of the mass eviction’ in Portland,” said Brandi Tuck, executive director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS). “Our [housing] stock is being taken over by people who have more money than low-wage earners and can pay these higher premium rents that landlords want. There’s not a supply of housing for low-income earners and the families we serve.”
Miller’s Human Solutions and Tuck’s PHFS are two of the main social service non-profits for local families who are experiencing, or are on the verge of, homelessness. Along with other important services for poor families, like rent assistance, housing placement, and job and life-skills training, these two organizations—a part of the “Multnomah County Homeless System of Care”—run family-focused homeless shelters.
And those shelters are bursting. Many of these families include parents with jobs who’ve never been homeless. Tuck said about 75 percent of parents in the PHFS shelter—which can fit eight families at a time—are employed, compared to about 30 to 40 percent when she started working there nine years ago. Their wages just aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.
“These are families that never had that need in the past,” said Miller, who’s been seeing the same thing.
With financial help from the county, Human Solutions opened a new shelter in a converted strip club off Southeast 161st and Stark in February, after previously operating an evening-only shelter during the “bad weather” months (November-May). The demand for a year-round, 24/7, family-specific shelter became too high.
“People had no place to go in the summer—when it wasn’t any easier to be a homeless family,” Miller said. The new shelter has a “no turn away” policy and space for 130 beds, but it often shelters more—like on a recent night when they accepted 227 people, including 117 kids.
“Most of the families that come to us for shelter have deep roots in Multnomah County,” Miller said. “One complication that families have to deal with is trying to maintain a level of continuity, stability, and normalcy for children. It’s a rough reality. Some families still say their kids experience stigma and challenges, as much as we try to make it a normal and supportive environment. But with the numbers we’re seeing, it’s increasingly harder to do.”
To get connected with these and other programs for low-income families, people in trouble are encouraged to call 211, an all-in-one clearinghouse resource for poor and homeless families. Miller and Tuck urge people to think ahead and call when financial trouble begins, well before they lose their housing. There’s a waiting list of 1,500 families on standby to get into the Homeless Families System of Care, Tuck said. The most vulnerable families get chosen first.
“It is 100 times easier to support a family to stay in housing than it is to assist them once they lose it, and then get them back into housing,” said Miller. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We focus heavily on prevention and do help a lot of families avoid eviction.”
Both organizations, and others in the county’s system of care, offer rent assistance for those who call 211. They have caseworkers whose jobs it is to find affordable places for families to live. Human Solutions also owns and operates 720 family-sized units in eastern Multnomah County, which are rented out at below-market rate.
However, there’s simply not enough housing for everybody, and times are dire, Miller and Tuck say. But this emergency could spur legitimate action on housing policy in state and local government—like building more homes or banning no-cause evictions.
“These are the worst times I’ve seen,” Miller said. “But I’m seeing signs that are hopeful. [State and local government] may be willing to change, and hopefully this approach is gaining some steam.”