Is Portland a Hub for Homelessness?

What’s interesting about this question is that it comes up basically everywhere there’s homelessness. SeattleLos AngelesLincoln City. No community seems to think its homelessness problem is homegrown, including Portland.

But is that true? Are homeless people actually moving to our city? Here’s what we found out.

The short answer is ‘yes’ — just as there are Bay Area techies moving into luxury apartments in the Pearl, there are also low-income people moving to our city and ending up on the streets. But it’s not all that many.

According to Multnomah County’s last official count, only 11 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in our city moved here less than a year ago.

By comparison, about 46 percent have been living in Portland for at least two years, and another 20 percent grew up here.

As for where folks are coming from, it’s hard to say, because 40 percent of participants in the county’s survey declined to answer that question. But we know that at least 10 percent moved here from neighboring counties, and another 10 percent came from somewhere else in Oregon.

There’s a theory in Portland (and most cities, actually) that providing social services, allowing street camping, and building overnight shelters acts as a “magnet” for homelessness — but the numbers don’t really back that up.

In 2017, less than half the people living without shelter in Multnomah County said they were homeless when they got here — and only 9 percent said that “access to services / resources” was their reason for moving. (The most common reasons were job opportunities and proximity to friends and family.)

Also, if people without housing were flocking to our city for its riches and magnanimity, you’d expect to see homelessness rates decline in the places they’re supposedly coming from.

But that’s not the case. From San Francisco to Seattle to the Oregon Coast, the homelessness crisis is only getting worse — often even faster than in Portland.

All that said, there is anecdotal evidence that some people prefer to try their luck in West Coast cities like Portland than in, say, Topeka. But c’mon, it’s Topeka. And those are fringe cases. Overall, it seems most people are either becoming homeless in Portland, or they’re moving here for all the usual reasons.

Just so that you know we’re not blowing liberal dogma up your behind, there is one “magnet myth” exception we heard about from Joint Office of Homeless Services spokesperson Denis Theriault.

Theriault says that when Portland promised in 2016 to provide shelter for all children, the county saw a sharp increase in homeless families seeking services, including from some families who’d been living in neighboring counties.

That unexpected demand caused the cost of the program to skyrocket, and it eventually had to be abandoned.