Here’s One Way Portland has Almost Solved Homelessness

More than 4,000 people are officially homeless in our city, and nearly 1,700 of them sleep in cars or on the streets. Meanwhile, housing prices have gone through the roof, and even big-time investments in affordable housing haven’t been enough to keep people in their homes.

The problem is huge, and like climate change, it can seem too big to solve. So today we want to focus on a smaller goal that’s within sight: ending homelessness for veterans.

In 2017, Multnomah County became the first West Coast community to reduce veteran homelessness to “functional zero,” thanks to a two-year push to get 1,200 homeless vets into housing.

Some officials claimed that Portland had “ended” veteran homelessness, but that’s not quite right. New people slip into homelessness every day, and on any given night, vets still make up about 10 percent of our city’s homeless population.

What “functional zero” actually means is that more vets are exiting homelessness in Portland than entering it, and newly homeless vets are being moved off the streets within 90 days.

In 2014, the White House announced an initiative to end veteran homelessness within two years, and Multnomah County joined dozens of other communities in taking on the challenge. Here’s how we made progress so quickly:

  • Putting names to faces. Since 2015, the Joint Office for Homeless Services has maintained an active list of all the veterans experiencing homelessness in our community. That has allowed officials to track the problem and precisely measure their success responding to it.
  • Scoring money from the Feds. The Obama administration put serious money behind the veteran homelessness initiative, tripling its spending and giving local agencies more funding for housing vouchers and social services.
  • Adding shelter space. The city, county, and state also committed resources to the cause, investing millions of dollars in projects like the Wy’east Shelter, a 125-bed facility in East Portland that gives priority to vets, seniors, and people with disabilities.
  • Building permanent supportive housing. To help deal with the most difficult cases, local agencies have combined affordable housing with ongoing support services at developments like Sandy Studios, a converted motel that now houses 50 low-income vets.

To truly end homelessness for veterans — and for everyone else — economists and policy wonks say we’ll need to address the problem that causes most homelessness in the first place: people’s struggle to afford housing in our city.