Your Questions About Homelessness, Answered

“How much does it cost the city to clean up the homeless camps? I see workers cleaning up the huge amount of stuff again and again.”

Teri Prifach sent us that question shortly after the New York Times reported on the “dirtiest block in San Francisco,” detailing the daily cleanups that caused the city to rack up a $70 million annual bill for street cleaning.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison (more on that in a moment), but Portland appears to be spending way less than San Francisco, even after adjusting for population.

According to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, Portland spent $1.6 million cleaning up homeless camps last year — or about $133,000 per month.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation picks up the biggest share of that cost, but three other agencies — the Parks Bureau, the Water Bureau, and the Bureau of Environmental Services — also chip in.

The comparison is difficult because San Francisco doesn’t distinguish homelessness-related cleanups from its broader street cleaning services, while Portland keeps those separate.

But a report released in June suggests that Portland’s combined costs are below $10 million — a big number, but still a fraction of the $70 million price tag in San Francisco.

Here are some of the other questions we received about homelessness:

“How does Portland’s homelessness problem compare to other cities of similar size?” —Stella Black

As a state, Oregon has one of the highest homelessness rates in the country — but that’s true of basically all states where the cost of housing is sky high.

If you compare Portland to other high-cost cities like Seattle and Oakland, we’re doing pretty well. In 2017, the number of unsheltered homeless people in Multnomah County actually dropped from 2015 levels, while those other cities saw significant increases.

Here’s what the county’s Joint Office for Homeless Service told us in a statement:

This crisis isn’t just about Portland or even other big cities. Housing costs are outpacing wages across the state, in small places and big places, and pushing people into homelessness when they exhaust all other options.

In fact, Oregon’s numbers would look worse if not for Portland and Multnomah County’s work in recent years to double shelter capacity. Our last street count, in 2017, showed unsheltered homelessness down nearly 12 percent since 2015. For the first time in a Point in Time Count, we actually tallied more people in emergency shelter, because of that expansion, than sleeping outside.

But even shelters aren’t an answer if people staying in them struggle to leave because they can’t afford the rent, even with jobs or disability payments. That’s why, in four years, we’ve invested in housing assistance and doubled the number of people who leave homelessness for housing — nearly 6,000 last fiscal year — to open up beds for others in need.

And it’s why we’ve already created hundreds of new units of supportive housing, to help the folks people most associate with the livability issues that arise when people have to live their private lives in public.

Multnomah County will conduct its next homelessness count some time this winter, so new data should be available by the end of the year.

“You hear some people say all homeless folks are addicts (with an attitude they don’t deserve help) or have mental health issues. Are there demographics to help describe the population of homeless people and the mix of factors that led them there?” —Anonymous

The best data available on this is the Point in Time Count that happens every two years. It’s not perfect, but it’s easily the most comprehensive study of who’s homeless in our city and why.

“Chronically homeless” is the official term for people who (a) have been homeless for an extended period of time, and (b) are dealing with some kind of “disabling condition,” including substance use disorders.

The chronically homeless make up less than half the county’s total homeless population, but they’re by far the most visible, because most of them are living on the streets or in cars (i.e. “unsheltered”) as opposed to in emergency shelter facilities or transitional housing.

Check out the full Point in Time report for everything we know about the city’s homeless population, and skip to Page 70 if you’re interested in the data on disabling conditions.

Why doesn’t the city provide homeless services directly instead of contracting out services to nonprofits? —Anonymous

The people we spoke to couldn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, but one likely reason is cost.

Government salaries and benefits are expensive, so many public agencies decide to contract with nonprofits that can provide the same levels of service for less money.

The downside to this approach is accountability. Local governments can withdraw funding from nonprofits that don’t live up to their obligations, but sometimes those failures take a while to catch — and even longer to address.