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May 5th, 2004 Dan Cook | News Stories
 

Mapping Out Homelessness

The city and county take a new approach to providing affordable housing.

     
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ERIK STEN
IMAGE: BASIL CHILDERS
Erik Sten thinks he's got an answer to the city's chronic homelessness problem, and he swears it's not just rearranging the cubicles in City Hall.

Last week, the city commissioner joined housing advocates to announce an ambitious overhaul of how local public and private agencies build and manage housing for Portland's poor and destitute.

Through a process known as "resource mapping," Sten announced April 28, the city is identifying all city, county and nonprofit programs aimed at battling homelessness. The idea of the project, funded by a couple of national nonprofits, is to better match resources to the services that are needed to get people off the street.

The current system certainly doesn't work. The 2000 U.S. Census showed the city's affordable-housing inventory fell 17,000 units short of the demand from Portland's poorest residents--those who live at 30 percent or below of the median household income. Nationally, only five states have a larger gap than Oregon.

There's a four-year wait to get federally subsidized housing in Portland. Last month, WW revealed that aging motels have become the residences of last resort for many people ("Home Sweet Home," April 14, 2004).

Sten says government and nonprofit agencies must coordinate their efforts in ways that fly in the face of tradition.

In the 1990s, city and county officials agreed to split up the work of battling homelessness. The city would handle the brick-and-mortar piece of affordable housing, while the county would administer services to those seeking or living in affordable housing.

The system looked good on paper, but an imbalance, driven by the city's fatter checkbook, soon emerged. "We need to work much more closely with the county so that we create an alignment between the location of affordable housing and the services available to the people who live there," says Trell Anderson, an acting housing program manager with the city's Bureau of Housing and Community Development. "The idea is that, when someone moves into an affordable unit, the services match up with their needs."

That sounds like a no-brainer, but Anderson concedes, "Right now, that doesn't always happen."

Housing advocates say there was another consequence of the division of duties: The city focused its efforts on individuals, while the county, with less money, tried to help families, who often ended up in seedy motels or out in the streets.

"The county has done a good job with its limited resources, but there needs to be more equity in our approach, or poor families will continue to limp along on the fewest resources," says Susan Stoltenberg, executive director of Portland Impact, a nonprofit group that provides services to homeless families.

Marshall Runkel, an assistant to Sten, says he expects a shift of resources toward poor families who can't get into conventional housing. "Families are a big component of our services, but due to various factors, that's been the weakest piece of it," he says.

Anderson says the new mapping revealed that the city, county and various nonprofits have substantial resources available but lack coordination. "A lot of progress has already been made, just by bringing all these folks to the table," he says. "Now we're ready to launch Phase Two, where the discussions are translated into action."

 
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