Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling could eliminate homelessness if he really wanted to

Josh O'Brien, director of Portland's Oxford Street Shelter, straightens matts on the third floor on his daily walk through Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012. O'Brien is receiving the city's Robert B. Ganley Public Service Award for his tireless efforts to help the homeless. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN )

Josh O’Brien, director of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter, straightens matts on the third floor on his daily walk through Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012. O’Brien is receiving the city’s Robert B. Ganley Public Service Award for his tireless efforts to help the homeless. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN )

I’ve been told I’m capable of being pretty cynical sometimes. Whenever I read news about a Democratic politician and developers, I’m suspicious. It goes back to one of the reasons why I withdrew from the Democratic Party several years ago: too much coziness between the Baldacci administration and developers/Democratic power houses like Kevin Mattson and Severin Beliveau.

So I am immediately cynical when I hear things like the proposal in Portland, put forth by the city’s Housing and Community Development division to require that developers who are beneficiaries of city dollars set aside 10 percent of the units for people who are chronically homeless.

I’m not a citizen of Portland, so I have no real stake in the game, but as someone who advocates on issues like poverty, I have a completely different perspective on the whole thing. First, with several hundred people going homeless every night, if I were mayor, I’d ask the council to place a moratorium on any grants or tax-incentives going to housing developers unless they are developing housing for the low-income and homeless.

If I were Mayor Ethan Strimling, I’d sit down with my developer friends and tell them that, in good conscience, I just couldn’t support any monies getting thrown their way until I did something about homelessness, thus the moratorium. I’d suggest that, with a vacancy rate of less than 2 percent, chances are that middle- and upper-income housing developments would be profitable without hedging their investments with taxpayer dollars. I would remind them that free market principles suggest that, if such endeavors are justifiable, the market would support them without a handout from the government.

When the developers stopped whining, I would invite them to help me reach a point where I could lift the moratorium, and I would establish a benchmark for doing so. I would invite them, as leaders in the housing market, to unite with me to develop Housing First programs (a wise suggestion put forth by a BDN commenter). The Housing First approach to addressing homelessness was first championed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, founder of Pathways to Housing.

It focuses on getting people who are homeless into housing as quickly as possible and then following up with other services. It’s based on the idea that housing is a basic right.

People who get into housing must pay a percentage of their income toward rent, typically one third. Participation in treatment for substance use disorders or other mental health needs is not required to access housing.

As the astute commenter observed, the state of Utah has virtually eliminated homelessness by focusing on the approach.

In a Washington Post article on the state’s achievement, Gordon Walker, the director of the state Housing and Community Development Division, acknowledged that it took a long-term commitment to the approach to reach a point where:

And now, the chronic homeless are no longer tallied in numbers. They’re tallied by name. The last few are awaiting their houses. “One woman had been on the street for a long time, until we finally convinced her to come into our housing,” Walker said. “She didn’t trust it, and she put her collection of stuff on the bed. Then for the next two weeks, she slept on the floor. … But once she realized that we weren’t going to take this from her, that she had a lock, she had a mailbox, she started to reacclimate.”

According to Walker, Utah began its campaign to eliminate homelessness around 2003/2004. A little over a decade later, it reached its goal. Walker estimated that Utah is saving $8,000 a year per homeless individual — compassion and cost-savings rolled into one.

If city and state leaders were able to eliminate chronic homelessness in Utah, ours should be able to do so, too. Strimling is not alone in needing to take a tougher stance with developer handouts and on eliminating homelessness. Piecemeal solutions, like a few units here and a few units there, won’t work.

Worrying about developers being able to hedge their investments with taxpayer dollars while trying to look compassionate about homelessness won’t work. We now know what will work, so there’s no excuse for not doing it. It’s time for Strimling and other elected officials to embrace real, evidence-based solutions.

It’s time for our leaders to show they really do care about our most vulnerable citizens by focusing on a very simple, proven solution to a very serious problem. Anything short of that seems like a half-hearted attempt to appear compassionate while maintaining the status quo.

Correction: This post has been updated to say that the city’s Housing and Community Development division proposed the new policy, not Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.