A Portland-area effort to end homelessness shows how not to do it

The Seattle Times published an interesting story today about the failure of an attempt by the city of Portland to offer shelter to everyone who needed it. The so-called “no turn away” policy started, as these things often do, with a genuine desire to help families living on the street and ended two years later with a blown budget.

It was a rainy winter evening when Deborah Kafoury got her wake-up call. She was delivering dinner to a church homeless shelter, and under the awning, out of the rain, children were doing their homework beneath a streetlight, waiting for the shelter to open.

As the chair of the Board of County Commissioners, Kafoury is chief executive officer of Multnomah County, which hangs like a drape along the Columbia River, covering Portland. And what she saw that night in 2015 made her angry.

The new policy, which promised a place for every family that requested help, worked for a time. But soon people were traveling from all over the state and from other nearby states, for the promise of a free place to stay:

The number of unsheltered families counted in Multnomah was halved from 2015 to 2017, even as the numbers of people sleeping outside skyrocketed in other West Coast cities.

But last summer, Human Solutions’ shelter was straining under the increased demand. Executive Director Andy Miller said they couldn’t train staff quickly enough to keep up with the growing demand. Meals, housing placement, rental assistance — everything was insufficient, Miller said.

Kafoury started hearing that hospital staff on the Oregon coast and social workers around the state were telling families they could go to Portland. At least eight families came from Seattle looking for shelter, according to officials.

About a third of families who reported their last address listed someplace outside of Oregon or Southwest Washington, though shelter officials say the previous-address question wasn’t always asked consistently…

When Human Solutions ran out of shelter, they started putting families up in motels, including the Irving family.

As the demand grew, the system went into the red. By November, there were 90 families in motels, and the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ original $2 million budget for family shelters was $1.5 million over budget.

Deborah Kafoury believes the solution to the problem is a statewide version of the policy with a lot more funding behind it. But that’s obviously not going to have the same problem as the county-wide effort. If Oregon becomes a no-turn-away state, you can bet that large numbers of homeless people currently living on the streets of Seattle and San Francisco will be looking for a bus ticket to get them there.

Marc Jolin, who runs the city-county homelessness-services office, says a commitment to creating more shelter space can actually make the problem worse:

“We can actually make the problem in our shelter system worse, rather than better, by over-investing in shelter,” Jolin said. “If I can keep someone in their housing, that is one less family that is in need of shelter.

That approach paid off in Washington, D.C., which decreased its population of homeless families by more than 20 percent last year by focusing on using shelter as a last resort, according to Kristy Greenwalt, D.C.’s director to end homelessness.

When a family comes in asking for shelter, staff checks shared records to make sure they’re not from one of D.C.’s suburbs; if they are, they’re referred back home. If they are from D.C., the city can set up mediation to smooth over disputes so families can stay with relatives rather than go to shelter.

Since 2015, the district has used these approaches to divert 6,000 families from staying in shelter, according to Greenwalt.

This is such a good idea I’m a bit surprised DC came up with it. Living on the taxpayer’s dime should always be a last resort. No one wants to see people, especially families with kids, on the street, but solving that problem can’t simply be a commitment to spend a limitless amount of money to house everyone who turns up requesting help. Some of these problems need to be solved by family members who have a greater obligation to these needy people than local governments do. If we can limit the number of people getting help to those who have zero other options, the cost will be a lot more manageable and taxpayers will be a lot more willing to pay to keep their cities from turning into cesspools.

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Jazz Shaw 12:01 PM on November 30, 2022