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Our Homeless Crisis: Utah claims success, so why can't Oregon?
Gallery: Homelessness in PortlandPrint Email >Anna Griffin | The Oregonian/OregonLive By Anna Griffin | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian
on December 12, 2015 at 5:00 AM, updated December 12, 2015 at 1:59 PM
Advocates for the homeless in Portland, like their counterparts in many other U.S. cities, are tired of hearing about Utah.
"Salt Lake City has a plan," Jon Stewart told viewers, "that will blow your mind."
Lloyd Pendleton, recently retired from his job coordinating Utah's anti-homelessness efforts, now spends his days traveling across the country and the continent encouraging other communities to do what all those happy headlines say his state did: Solve homelessness.
"If you haven't done the same thing, it's not because you can't," Pendleton said during a recent visit to Oregon. "It's because you haven't found the willpower to do it yet."
Provocative stuff, particularly in Portland, where tents and shopping carts seem as common a sight downtown as those pink Voodoo Doughnut boxes and civic leaders have declared a housing "State of Emergency" But the contrast between Utah and Oregon isn't that clear or simple.
For one thing, Utah hasn't ended homelessness, though state and local leaders there have made significant strides toward wiping out the most expensive and obvious version of it. For another, Oregon is a very different place, with very different obstacles.
Still, Utah does offer lessons -- even if one is that it's possible no community will ever be able to declare complete victory.
"If you came downtown tonight, you'd still see homeless people," said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce's Downtown Alliance. "Many of them may be temporarily homeless, but there are definitely homeless people. We have a lot of work left to do."
The Utah model
In the early 2000s, prompted by the federal government, more than 350 U.S. cities, counties and states adopted their own "10-year plan to end homelessness." Almost all embraced a philosophy called "Housing First." The thinking: Get homeless men and women indoors first, then provide them with drug and alcohol rehab, mental health care, job training and other ancillary services needed to stay inside for good.
Like almost every community, Utah focused on housing first and on "chronically homeless" men and women, those on the streets for more than a year or at least four times in the past three. They represent just 20 percent or so of a city's homeless population, but studies have shown they eat up almost 80 percent of the total spent on the poorest of the poor.
The difference between Utah and almost everywhere else?
"We actually implemented our plan," Pendleton said. "We didn't just talk about housing first. We put money into it."
In the past decade, the number of homeless people identified in Utah's biennial point-in-time count dipped from 3,104 in 2005 to 3,025 this year. The number of chronically homeless people fell by 71 percent.
|Homeless count, 2005||3104||16221|
|Chronically homeless, 2005||615||3897|
In Oregon, the total number of homeless people counted dropped over that decade from 16,221 to 13,176. Yet the chronically homeless population increased. (Experts say the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in a given year is likely three to four times those spotted in the one-night count.)
How to explain the different results?
Utah leaders, starting at the very top of state government, took a more centralized approach that put new and existing money into increasing the number of affordable units available and the number of social workers to help people stay inside. They gave the the longest-term homeless first access to those new apartments.
"One of the things Salt Lake teaches is that if you bring sufficient resources to a population of the homeless community, and you align all of the government and private sector and faith-based resources together, you can actually end homelessness for that sub-population," said Marc Jolin, who runs A Home for Everyone, the joint anti-homelessness effort between Portland and Multnomah County.
Still, advocates in Portland and elsewhere grow weary of headlines such as the one in Mother Jones: "The Shockingly Simple, Surprisingly Cost-Effective Way to End Homelessness." Like most other U.S. cities, including Portland, Salt Lake City saw a recession-driven spike in the past few years of homeless women and homeless families.
"It doesn't necessarily help the conversation to say, 'Well Utah did it, so why haven't we?'" said Israel Bayer, executive director of the alternative newspaper Street Roots, sold by and for homeless people. "The reality in Utah, like so many other things when you're talking about this issue, is much more complicated than that."
Pendleton hears that sentiment everywhere he goes.
"Every city thinks it is different," he said. "Every city thinks it's problem is somehow unique. But the solution is the same: Homes for the homeless."
How we differ
Oregon is different in some important ways.
Portland's 10-year plan to end homelessness was held up as a model for the rest of the country when it first came out in 2004. "What I find fascinating is that back in 2005 or so, when I first started this work, you were one of the places people said we should go see," Pendleton said.
Inconsistent political leadership, lags in federal funding and the region's multi-layered, many-headed form of government made it easy for momentum to lag. Affordable housing has never been a priority for state government, though rising rents, shrinking vacancy rates and heavy lobbying have prompted House Democrats to add it to their list of priorities for the 2016 session.
In Oregon, the state's housing trust fund is hard to use and inconsistently funded. Portland and Multnomah County leaders have declared a housing emergency and pledged $30 million to new affordable housing efforts, but acknowledge that's a start rather than a solution. A coalition of activist groups and nonprofits says the Portland region needs to spend $50 million a year for the next 20 years to close the affordable housing gap. They're pushing for a new revenue source to build affordable housing, potentially through a 2016 ballot measure.
Utah lawmakers created a special state trust fund for homeless services in 1988. Taxpayers can donate to it when they pay their income taxes each year, though the bulk of it comes from the state's general fund budget. So when state leaders decided to make ending homelessness a priority, they already had one potential source of money for the effort.
New housing costs more and takes longer to build here than in Utah. Construction standards are higher, and Utah is a "right to work" state, meaning contractors face fewer labor requirements. Although parts of Utah are seeing tremendous growth, land in most parts of the state remains cheaper than in Oregon. New housing built as part of Utah's 10-year plan cost about $100,000 per unit, Pendleton said. In Oregon, nonprofit leaders say it's hard to build for less than $150,000 per apartment.
Those differences add up. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Utah added almost 1,200 new units dedicated to homeless people during the past decade. Oregon lost 873.
Housing First requires ... housing. Oregon simply hasn't been able to build enough.
"In many ways, we're doing great work with the resources we have," said Jes Larson, director of Oregon's Welcome Home Coalition, the group pushing for a new, permanent revenue stream for affordable housing. "The problem is we need more."
The power of faith
One more big difference: Although state leaders are loath to tally up precisely how much the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has donated in cash, land and manpower, it's hard to overstate the role the church played in Utah's success.
Sixty percent of all Utah residents are Mormons, and the church has a long, broad tradition of helping the poor plus the infrastructure that comes with that commitment. The church is the single most influential force in the state, with the financial and political power of several Fortune 500 companies.
"If Phil Knight came out tomorrow and said, 'I'm giving $200 million and challenging everyone in the Pacific Northwest to meet this problem,' it's a whole different game," Bayer said.
Beyond brute force and big money, the church plays a subtler but still important role in shaping public opinion, particularly among business leaders. Mathis notes that Mormon congregations are led by lay clergy.
"It's usually someone from your community, like a lawyer, an architect, a business owner. For three years as bishop, you're a part-time de facto social worker. You learn to appreciate that people hit trouble, that they make mistakes, they need a hand sometimes," he said. "I think that experience creates a level of empathy that the business community might not otherwise have. You take that back to work with you, that sense that this is your responsibility, too."
The Three C's
Despite all those differences, Utah's experience does offer lessons for Oregon. Pendleton, a soft-spoken grandfather who worked for the Mormon Church before Utah's governor "borrowed" him for homelessness, turns inspirational speaker when outlining what he says are the three takeaways for other communities.
He ticks off "the 3 C's" - "champions, collaboration and compassion."
"You have to have some key champions, people who can pick up the phone and make things happen," he said. "You have to be collaborative, setting a priority and then pooling all your political and financial resources around it.
"And you have to be compassionate. We call them 'homeless citizens,' not 'those people.'"
Despite Pendleton's ongoing victory tour, Utah offers one more more lesson: The work never stops.
Now that they've made a big dent in chronic homelessness, city, county and state leaders are turning to ending homelessness among veterans and answering the rising tide of homeless women and families. In 2016, they're asking state legislators for another $20 million to fight homelessness. Much of it would go to renovate The Road Home, The Road Home, Salt Lake City's 1,000 bed shelter, and open new separate emergency space for women, teens and other vulnerable subpopulations.
"One of the big things we've learned is that this is full-time work," said Ben McAdams, the mayor of Salt Lake County. "You don't just identify a solution, and you're done. It's a constant ongoing effort, which requires constant ongoing investment.
"That's really how you begin to chip away it, by understanding that you're never going to be done."
(503) 412-7053; @annargriffin>