By Jane M. O’Brien
A colorfully dressed young woman in the throes of a frenetic dance occupies the median at NW Third and Glisan on an early Wednesday morning.
Commuters may wonder, “doesn’t she have a place to live?” Probably not. As I drive to my masters of social work field practicum at an emergency shelter for women, new faces remind me of the enormity of the issue confronting social service providers in placing chronically homeless women in affordable housing. The majority of the women we serve meet the federal eligibility requirements for housing assistance. My typical client is chronically homeless and struggling with co-occurring substance addiction and mental illness. Many of these women have histories of trauma, abuse and neglect as children. Living on the streets and in shelters is a result of exhausting other housing options: family members, friends, acquaintances and abusive husbands and partners. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) over 60 percent of individuals who are chronically homelessness have experienced lifetime mental health problems, and over 80 percent have experienced lifetime alcohol and/or drug problems.
Portland’s 2004 plan, “Home Again: A 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County,” aimed to place and maintain 60 percent of homeless people in permanent housing. In 2009, President Obama signed the Hearth Act, creating the first federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Portland’s 2012 “reset” plan to comply with the act established a “continuum of care” model involving a collective membership body of representative stakeholders charged with ending homelessness in Multnomah County. This latest attempt prioritizes vulnerable groups: children, women fleeing from domestic violence and people with disabilities. Despite the well-intentioned government plans, current data reveal we are not achieving the goal of reducing homelessness. Portland’s homeless see “no vacancy” at every turn in their quest for affordable housing.
The Portland Housing Bureau and Multnomah County contracted with Kristina Smock Consulting to conduct a “point-in-time” count of the homeless population in Portland and Multnomah County on Jan. 30, 2013. Women comprise 38 percent of the total homeless population, an increase of 22 percent, moving from 787 in 2011 to 958 in 2013. Data from the 2012 report “State of Homelessness in America” by the National Alliance to End Homelessness show a 3.8 percent increase in unsheltered homeless Oregonians from 2009-2011. Back in 1978, the city goal for affordable housing units was 5,183. Today, there are 3,271 units renting for under $473 a month. At any given time the occupancy rate for these units is nearly 100 percent. One reason for the decline in affordable, single room occupancy units is the repurposing of residential hotels and other buildings to uses other than low-income housing.
Housing Connections, funded in part by the Portland Housing Bureau, is designed to help people locate affordable housing in the Portland/Vancouver metro area. An April 13 affordable housing query of the 150 properties listed on the site revealed only one current opening – a men’s group home. The rest of the properties had open or closed wait lists with no time estimates of potential openings.
As I continue to advocate for my homeless clients, one solution to addressing the unmet need of chronic homelessness among individuals with dual diagnosed mental and substance addiction disorders may be to enhance Oregon’s infrastructure of treatment service systems to provide accessible, effective, comprehensive, coordinated/integrated and evidence-based treatment services; permanent housing; and peer supports. Treatment service systems would be funded by social impact bonds (SIBs), also known as social innovation financing or pay for success. The Portland Housing Bureau could contract with a bond-issuing organization responsible for raising capital from independent investors including banks, foundations and individuals, and for hiring and managing nonprofit service providers. A neutral evaluator would measure program outcomes, and if the program achieves its stated objectives then investors and ultimately taxpayers are repaid based on government cost savings as a result of the program’s success.
Our dancing sister occupying the median and my clients are homeless – and waiting.
Jane O’Brien is a student at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work.