Shelter space can be used effectively by tracking and reporting vacancies
If a homeless person asks you to find them shelter space, could you do it? It’s harder than you think. That’s because Portland lacks a key piece of a shelter system. No one knows which shelters have space or how much space is available. The first step in sheltering people is knowing where space exists. Without a tracking system, campsites spiral out of control, while their residents suffer. People with mental health problems and drug addictions are effectively cut off from recovery options.
If a homeless person were to ask an outreach worker for a place to stay, the best they could do would be to call each shelter individually. Oregon Housing and Community Services says agencies and local partners rely on 211, an information hotline which can provide only the location and contact information of shelters. Operators do not regularly maintain contact with shelters or receive vacancy updates, so they can’t report actual availability. This leaves people on public streets and away from resources. To solve these problems, Portland should implement a shelter tracking system that would allow outreach workers and officers to house homeless people quickly.
Shelter tracking systems have already helped other western states battle homelessness. Modesto, California successfully implemented a basic tracking system. It takes one person up to two hours each day to contact and receive information from emergency shelter providers in Stanislaus County. After the data is collected, it’s given to outreach workers and law enforcement officers who use it to find shelter for homeless people. Spokane, Washington goes a step further and tracks shelter capacity by having homeless shelters report their availability to a dispatcher. The city is also working on a public website that would allow easy data entry and near-real-time tracking. These examples show that a shelter tracking system is not only a possibility, but it is vital to optimizing local public resources.
Portland should implement a manual tracking system and make use of our local Homeless Management Information System. Effective tools are currently available. The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) has online applications which track homelessness resources through geographic information systems. The City of Portland already uses ESRI products to report and visualize campsite locations. Proper use of these resources would allow access to near-real-time data on shelter vacancies. By using available and familiar technologies, Portland could target its homelessness outreach and use shelters effectively.
A tracking system also would allow Portland to comply with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Martin v. City of Boise. In 2018, the Court ruled that local ordinances can’t ban sitting or sleeping in public spaces if there is no available shelter space. But if officers can show that nearby shelters have open beds, they could help people get access to life-saving resources and minimize the risks associated with camping outside. Both Modesto and Spokane have maintained compliance with the Martin ruling through their use of shelter tracking systems.
The bottom line is that people are needlessly sleeping on the streets in Portland, while shelters have vacancies that are difficult to find. Over the past few years, Portland and Multnomah County have opened many emergency shelters. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, six motels have housed people to help traditional shelters with social distancing. In order to effectively house individuals who have been left in the streets, we need to know what resources are available. By creating a shelter tracking system, Portland would be able to comply with the Martin ruling while providing outreach workers and officers with the right information to connect homeless people with housing. The worst thing someone seeking shelter can hear is, “We don’t know if there is space.” It’s time for answers.
Vlad Yurlov is a policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He co-authored a forthcoming report on Portland’s homelessness crisis.
By Eric Fruits. Ph.D.
Winter is coming to Oregon, and it might be a rough one. As if the pandemic, riots, and a recession weren’t enough, the Northwest is looking at La Niña weather conditions that will bring us a cold, wet winter. While most of us will tough it out in our warm homes, thousands of unsheltered homeless will be stranded on the streets or in camps, unless we make better use of the resources we have.
In November 2016, Portland voters approved a $260 million bond measure to build more affordable housing in the city. Two years later, Metro voters approved a $650 million affordable housing bond. Combined, the measures promised to build more than 5,200 units of affordable housing throughout the region. Currently, only 51 units have been completed.
This year, the region’s voters approved Metro’s two new income taxes to provide “supportive housing services” to the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. The taxes are anticipated to bring in approximately $250 million a year. During the campaign, proponents claimed, “We know what works, it’s just a matter of scale.” They say what works is a “Housing First” approach providing thousands of units of permanent affordable housing along with a wide range of support services for those placed in housing.
To be blunt, no one knows what works, and there appear to be no economies of scale. For more than two decades, the Housing First approach has been heralded as the best solution. But, these projects take years to build and construction costs per unit are more than double private sector costs. The “wrap around” services are expensive and require individuals to have the ability and intent to fully use them. Even worse, there is no evidence that the Housing First approach is effective at reducing the total number of unsheltered people in a community.
Observers and experts concluded Portland and Multnomah County’s emphasis on a Housing First approach diverted money away from emergency shelter beds. Housing redevelopment projects before and after the Great Recession replaced single-room occupancy apartments and low-cost motel rooms with high-end apartments and condominiums. Put simply, there are not enough beds to support all the homeless in the region. Local governments’ slow-motion construction of affordable housing units can’t satisfy existing demand, let alone keep up with future demand.
With winter approaching and an unknown end to the pandemic, the region needs thousands of emergency shelter beds now. Fortunately, the region has a facility that is well suited to house thousands of people in such an emergency.
The Portland Expo Center is a 330,000-square-foot exposition center sitting on 53 acres. The Expo Center is owned and operated by Metro. The facility has meeting rooms, a full-service kitchen, a restaurant, and flexible outdoor exhibit space. The facility has been losing money for years and needs significant capital upgrades to compete in the exposition market.
The exhibition space alone could serve 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. Its 2,500-vehicle parking lot provides ample space for individuals who prefer to camp or sleep in vehicles. It is located away from residential and commercial areas, but also has easy access to public transit—the TriMet Yellow Line terminates at the front of the Expo Center and provides frequent service to downtown Portland.
Because the pandemic effectively closed the Expo Center, Metro should work with other local governments to immediately open the Expo Center as a temporary emergency homeless shelter. Repurposing an existing exposition center would be much less expensive than Metro and the City of Portland’s current “affordable housing” construction projects. Over time, Metro can use its Supportive Housing Services funds to redevelop the Expo Center into a permanent emergency and/or transitional housing shelter providing services to those in need.
Converting the Expo Center could bring immediate relief to thousands of homeless individuals and families while providing a much better return on investment than current plans to remodel the site for low-attendance expositions. If we’re truly all in this together, it’s time to put the Expo Center to work.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization, and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article was published in the Portland Tribune on November 22, 2020.
By John A. Charles, Jr.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler hopes to spend $31 million next year addressing homelessness. This is ten percent more than Portland is spending this year. According to the Mayor, the goal is to help place people in permanent housing.
Of course, ending homelessness has been a goal of Portland mayors for decades. They never solve the problem because they conceptualize the homeless as an amorphous blob. But every person who lacks housing has a unique set of circumstances, and that background has to be understood.
It’s much more complicated than simply building more housing. Some people don’t want to live in a traditional home. They may have a psychological need to be outside. Others don’t want the responsibilities that come with home ownership, such as maintaining a yard and paying taxes. Some people have drug addictions that prevent them from earning enough income to afford housing.
While specific facts change, certain principles don’t; and the most important one is that simply giving people free stuff doesn’t work. Everybody deserves a hand up; no one benefits from a handout.
Before spending another $31 million, the Mayor should tell us what will be different this time around. If he can’t answer the question, he shouldn’t get the money.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By John A. Charles, Jr.
In November the regional government, Metro, released the results of a new public opinion poll of 800 registered voters living in the tri-county region.
One of the questions was, “In a few words of your own, what is the most important change that could be made to improve the quality of life in the Portland region?”
The top three responses were: dealing with the homeless/poverty (25%); affordable housing (17%); and traffic congestion (14%).
Environmental issues tied for last place (2%), and global warming did not even make the list.
This is roughly the opposite of what we frequently hear from many of the political talking heads. Listening to them, one would think that environmental Armageddon is upon us, especially because Donald Trump is President.
For instance, the top legislative priority for Senator Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, is a bill he hopes to pass in early 2018 that would create a $700 million/year tax on carbon dioxide by establishing a convoluted industrial regulatory program. The ambient environment would not be improved one bit by this tax, but all of our basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter, and energy—would become more expensive.
Sen. Dembrow’s biggest supporter on this issue is Governor Kate Brown, who recently flew to Bonn, Germany to hobnob with celebrities at a United Nations conference on global warming. The two of them are convinced that if they can make energy more expensive, we’ll all use less of it and the world will be saved from “global warming.”
Most voters intuitively know that this is a scam. The term “global warming” doesn’t even have a useful definition. Voters know that the pain-versus-gain equation of global warming taxes is heavily one-sided: the “benefits” of reducing fossil fuel use are highly speculative (and may not exist at all); long-term (potentially thousands of years away); and global in nature. Yet the costs will be known, immediate, and local.
As the Metro poll shows, there is very little grassroots support for this kind of punishment.
It’s not surprising that homelessness, housing, and traffic congestion rank as the top three issues in the Metro poll because these are problems most of us confront daily. They are also things we can take action on.
Unfortunately, government itself has caused much of the mess, so voters will need to think carefully before signing on to more tax-and-spend programs. Almost every time regulators intervene in real estate markets, the result is some combination of less housing production and higher housing prices.
Take the most obvious intervention: urban growth boundaries. Since 1980, the population of the Portland metro region has increased by about 78%, but the available land supply for housing has only gone up by 10%. Making buildable land artificially scarce and thus more expensive is not a winning strategy if you’re trying to provide more housing.
But lack of land is just the start. After you add in ubiquitous farm and forestland zoning, extortionist system development charges, tree protection ordinances, inclusionary zoning requirements, prevailing wage rules on public housing projects, and numerous other interventions, the result is that we have a serious shortage of housing.
Even the government is trapped in government regulation. Last spring the Portland City Council approved spending $3.7 million to purchase a strip club on SE Powell Boulevard near Cleveland High School. The City plans to tear down the building and build 200 to 300 units of low-income public housing on the 50,000-square-foot property. City officials have admitted that it will take two years just to obtain the necessary permits for the redevelopment.
If it takes this long to get the permits for one of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s top priorities, imagine the delays facing a private sector developer.
The housing woes in such cities as Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle are mostly self-inflicted. Housing supply is lagging demand because we’ve created so many barriers to housing construction. Removing those barriers should be a top priority for the state legislature when it convenes in February.
Global warming legislation does not even deserve a hearing.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Portland Tribune.
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