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Ten-year plan to end homelessness gets regional redux

The city and county have convened a committee to reassess the priorities of the 10-year plan to end homelessness
photo by Israel Bayer

By Amanda Waldroupe, Contributing Writer

Now in the autumn of its life, the region’s 10-year plan to end homelessness is getting a makeover, of sorts.

The yearlong effort by Portland and Multnomah County is referred to as the 10-year reset. More than 40 people representing social-service agencies and a wide variety of other organizations are involved in identifying programs and services that have been effective, areas of need and refocusing service dollars and energy.

The reset plan is expected to be presented to the Portland City Council, Multnomah County Commission and the board of directors of the area’s housing authority, Home Forward, in the coming months.

The original 10-year plan is in its final two years, and service providers say it needs to adapt to reflect the changing demographics of the area’s homeless population, the lingering impacts of the recession and ever-dwindling budgets at the federal, state and local level for social services.

At stake, they say, is the ability to end homelessness — whether for an individual or family — as quickly and efficiently as possible. There is also hope the reset plan will reinvigorate political and public support for ending homelessness, and attract more money from local organizations and the federal government.

Discussions about the reset plan began approximately a year ago when County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury and City Commissioner Nick Fish, the two elected officials most involved in homeless issues, convened a group now known as the Reset Committee to look at refreshing the 10-year plan’s goals and priorities. 

“It seemed to me a perfect and opportune time to take a look at … successes, new and creative ideas that might work better than ways we’ve been doing it in the past,” Kafoury says. “With any strategic plan, you don’t do it once and never look at it again.”

The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness was created in 2004 when the administration of former President George W. Bush directed major cities with large homeless populations to develop a plan with policies and strategies to end homelessness within 10 years. In the Portland area, the plan is a collaborative effort among Multnomah County, the City of Portland and the county’s housing authority, Home Forward.

The plan emphasizes ending the homelessness of the “chronically homeless,” people who have been homeless for at least a year. To do that, it focused on the creation of permanent supportive housing: housing connected with wrap-around services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, health care, disability services, employment training, access to services assisting with benefit applications, among other programs.

“The reset process reflects a new approach to ending homelessness. Eight years into the first plan we are hitting the refresh button,” Fish said.

“We need to be clear about our expectations. We have much to be proud of during the first eight years. (Former City Commissioner) Erik Sten, (Former County Commissioner) Serena Cruz and others deserve much credit for designing this system. But the truth is that we never expected to “end” homelessness in 10 years. I never liked the concept of a “10-year” plan — it was a requirement of federal funding, but was inherently misleading.”

The plan’s philosophical driver is quickly getting a homeless person into permanent housing. This “housing first” model assumes that once a person is housed, it is easier to solve the issues compromising their ability to stay in housing. 

The plan’s most prominent manifestation is the resource access center in Old Town Chinatown. The Bud Clark Commons, as the building was named, houses a large day center and a 90-bed men’s shelter, operated by Transition Projects. Its upper levels hold 175 units of affordable housing reserved for housing the unhealthiest and most vulnerable homeless people, managed by Home Forward.

“I think that (the 10-year plan) has been successful in what it set out to achieve in terms of using things we and our partners knew worked to end people’s homelessness,” says Traci Manning, the director of the Portland Housing Bureau. “In terms of the chronically homeless, supportive housing was very successful. A lot of the targets that we set for ourselves …have played out.”

In many ways, by the time the recession began in the fall of 2008, the 10-year plan might as well have been on autopilot. The city and county were meeting or exceeding the vast majority of the plan’s goals, and while it’s debatable whether homelessness is something that can be completely eradicated, people were getting into housing. But the recession threw the social safety net for a loop. Suddenly, providers found themselves dealing with an emergency.

Within months, Oregon’s unemployment shot up to 11.6 percent by the summer of 2009, from 6 percent one year earlier. Oregon still has the grim distinction of being one of the hungriest states in the country, with one of the highest employment rates, and high rates of homelessness.

The recession’s most notable impact is a sharp increase in family homelessness. “We’ve seen a notable increase,” says Marc Jolin, the executive director of the outreach agency JOIN.

Many homeless families, Jolin and others say, are homeless simply because a member lost his or her job. According to the city’s 2011 street count, which provides a snapshot of how many people are sleeping outside on a January night, the number of homeless families increased by 35 percent since 2010. That year, the social service agency Human Solutions opened a new family shelter with a capacity of 80 families.

“It was packed,” Kafoury says of a recent visit to a family shelter.

Identifying and serving the changing demographics of the Portland area’s homeless population is the main reason for the 10-year plan’s reset.

“I think there was a desire to broaden the scope of who was being served under the 10-year plan,” Jolin says. “It’s been fairly narrowly focused on chronic homelessness.”

The revised plan is still in draft form and subject to change as the reset committee meets for the last time in January. But a recommendation unlikely to change is naming four subpopulations within the homeless population as priorities for services: families with children, people with disabilities, racial and ethnical minorities, and youth.

“There was a lot of discussion,” says Sally Erickson, the Portland Housing Bureau’s manager of homeless programs. “Our resources are insufficient to meet the need. We kept landing on vulnerability.”

The reset plan does not explicitly name chronically homeless people as a priority population. But its authors say that does not mean that subset of the homeless population will receive fewer services.

“The chronically homeless are still a priority population in the plan,” Jolin says. “It calls out individuals with disabilities, and that will really capture those folks.”

But Jolin says it is important for the new 10-year plan to have strategies and goals for ending homelessness “that are appropriate across” different populations of homeless people. “Calling out chronically homeless people doesn’t address what we’re doing already and what we should be doing with the other populations,” he says. “It’s too limiting.”

“We have a robust network and system for the chronically homeless,” Kafoury says. “We just haven’t spent as much time, energy or dollars on homeless families.”

Increasing the emphasis on flexibility and nimbleness of programs and services is also emphasized in the reset plan. The 10-year plan has focused on providing permanent supportive housing just as heavily as it has focused on housing chronically homeless people. But the people involving in writing the reset plan say one size does not fit all.

“We don’t need to have every program be that comprehensive. Many of these families that we see don’t need that high level of services,” Kafoury says. “We need to have a range.”

Many who have become homeless because of the recession, including families, need little else than help paying a security deposit, a few months of utility bills, or a few month’s rent through the short-term rent assistance program.

“They tend to not be outside as long. They have a more recent work history, more recent residential history,” Jolin says. “That, in some respects, makes it easier.”

The reset plan also recommends beefing up the safety net’s programs related to helping homeless or formerly homeless people get jobs and make their own income. In general, the reset plan emphasizes building collaborative partnerships with a wide variety of groups that have a stake in ending homelessness — including faith-based groups, private business, education, health care agencies, and particularly the new coordinated care organizations — Oregon’s revamped Medicaid delivery system.

“It isn’t just a housing plan,” Manning says. “It’s also about health care, education, (and) income attainment. Technically we knew that, but it’s a lot more explicit about having those people at the table.”

Related to developing that big tent of partnerships is the creation of a new governing body that will oversee efforts to end homelessness. Manning says identifying what the governance body will be, exactly, is the last piece the reset committee has to hammer out.

“It’s about tapping the intellectual and maybe the financial resources of the whole community,” Manning says.

In general, Kafoury hopes the reset plan will “really quantify what services are needed, so we can give the public an idea of how much we spend now, and how much it would ultimately cost if we want to eradicate homelessness.”

The reset plan will also reflect the federal government’s new plan for ending homelessness, enacted under the Obama administration. Simply called the Federal Strategic Plan, it calls for ending chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, preventing and ending family homelessness in ten years, and creating a way to end all types of homelessness.

The federal plan says that “high-performing communities,” or areas that meet targets for ending homelessness, may be more competitive for additional federal funds. These communities would have to show that homelessness was reduced by 10 percent from the previous year, that less than 5 percent of formerly homeless people become homeless again, or that 85 percent of housed families remained housed within two years.

“There are new opportunities we can leverage there,” Manning says.