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Jesse Beason talks Portland safety net

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

For the past five years, Jesse Beason has been a fighter in Portland’s affordable housing world, standing up for economic and social equity for low-income homeowners. As the executive director of Proud Ground, a Portland-based nonprofit, he has worked to help families buy their first home, and has been a voice for an entire continuum of services that takes people out of poverty into stability.

That advocacy has taken shape in the campaigns to preserve basic shelter and housing programs dubbed the Portland safety net. Last year those programs were in the crosshairs of one-time funding cuts, and this year they are yet again on the chopping block as part of sweeping reductions in all city budgets. The battle for $2.3 million for basic services, from shelter beds to health programs to resource referral programs, will continue until the city hashes out it’s final budget this summer. It could be a farewell bout for Beason: This summer, he will be leaving Proud Ground to become the director of public affairs with the Northwest Health Foundation.

Joanne Zuhl: Portland has many programs that help people experiencing poverty and homelessness, but can you explain how this comes together as a comprehensive safety net?

Jesse Beason: Public and nonprofit agencies have worked to coordinate funding streams as much as federal and state regulations allow. We’ve streamlined rent assistance, for instance, by pooling funds.

But I’d say that it’s at the service-provider level that the safety net comes together to provide efficient services and effective referral and coordination for the folks we serve. This means that if a particular agency doesn’t offer the services someone needs, we know where they might be able to receive them, and can hopefully help make that connection. It means that someone calling 211 can be steered in the right direction. It means that we all know what each other’s agencies are doing, and excel at.

If a mental health outreach worker finds somebody on the streets who is ready to leave the streets, they need to be able to call another provider for housing placement dollars that will help that person get into an apartment and pay the next few months of rent. And once they’re in, what do they sleep on, how do they begin a life indoors without the tools and resources of someone like Community Warehouse, and also, can the mental health outreach worker call someone on the streets and see if the resources are available, and that’s what resources like 211 is providing — there’s a place to call right away where the resources are and how to get those. And once that person is housed and has some basic needs met, what are the other services and case worker management and all the other things that need to come together, how does that person then get those resources, and all of that depends on a safety net that’s been carefully coordinated and stitched together over the years by incredibly effective organizations. You take out any one of those pieces, and our chances of that person succeeding drops.

J.Z.: For yet another year in a row, the city is looking at making significant cuts into make-or-break services — those that directly keep people out of homelessness or directly get them into shelter. This, on top of a regular stream of cuts from the state and federal level: What’s the status of these programs after years of cutting back?

J.B.: We know that Portland has a successful system that, when funded adequately, is effective at moving folks into housing, preventing homelessness, providing them services they need, and even helping families move to homeownership. But repeated cuts mean these programs are doing less with less.

It means we can’t adequately provide much cheaper options than the emergency room or jail. It means many of the disparities faced by communities of color in homeownership are not addressed.

It means we are turning a lot of our most vulnerable neighbors away.

We have proven time and again that the way that we help people succeed is far more cost effective than sending someone to jail or to the emergency room. But because the flavors of money follow different paths, it has meant that instead of looking at a cost effective solution, we’re looking at these cuts that aren’t scalpel-like, they’re really hatchets. And that undermines the entire system and costs taxpayers more in the end.

J.Z.: How does homeownership fit into the safety net?

J.B.: Homelessness and vulnerability look very different across various communities. In particular around homeownership, one of the biggest issues is foreclosure. We know that we have many, many low-income renters and many, many low-income homeowners that are one job loss or one missed payment away from losing their house. Whether you’re a renter or a homeowner, losing your house puts you in the same level of vulnerability as far as ending up on the streets.  And indeed, many of the folks, in particular families experiencing homelessness, are previous homeowners. So we know that housing stability affects both renters and homeowners.

J.Z.: Who are the big losers if this budget goes through as is?

J.B.: Folks experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of becoming homeless through foreclosure or eviction, are the biggest losers. These are seniors, veterans, people suffering from mental illness and families with children. Portland has built an effective service delivery system. While the delivery system may be able to stay somewhat intact, it is the direct services that will be decimated. In other words, we need mental health outreach workers, but what does it mean if they can’t place that person into housing and treatment?

J.Z.: What does this budget process say about how our communities address poverty and homelessness? Are we letting dollar availability drive policy?

J.B.: I think that Mayor Hales has rightfully asked every city bureau to go through the painful exercise of identifying cuts. The Portland Housing Bureau need not be any exception.

Historically, the City Council has recognized and prioritized the safety net. When they see the good work being done, and understand the impacts, I hope and believe they will be inclined to do so again.

J.Z.: How is the city and county doing in terms of meeting low-income housing needs? What particular challenges are we going to be looking at ahead?

J.B.: We know that placing folks in housing, or helping them keep the housing they have, is the most effective way to address the root causes of homelessness. We know that addressing the minority homeownership gap means delivering generational impacts for communities of color. So our biggest challenge is the rising rental and ownership market, and the large need for housing that is affordable to our most vulnerable and underserved residents. But the federal resources that have been the historic source for providing affordable housing have been reduced by repeated cuts and decimated by sequestration. My hope is that we can look for local solutions to address the need.

J.Z.: If we have to do more with less money, who are the innovators? What are the innovations?

J.B.: Portland is lucky to have many innovative providers. PHB’s work on focusing our efforts on equity allows us to build on that innovation, I believe, so that our programs and service-providers are addressing disparities in all communities.

There are two significant things that have happened in the past few years. We did get together — the county, Home Forward, the city and even the state — to look at a coordinated effort to do rent assistance (short-term, usually one or two months of rent, to keep people in housing), so it’s not just seven different funds and everybody doing things piecemeal. But we are coordinating what little dollars we do have to make sure they go further.

Some basic statistics that I’ve heard is it can cost around $1,600 to $2,000 to prevent someone from being evicted or get them into housing in the first place. It costs $7,000 to provide shelter for somebody, per household. We know that we have been innovative in that approach with housing first. Shelters are an expensive, albeit necessary system, but I think we’ve learned that it’s not a system worth growing. Instead, we know that housing first is an approach worth growing. We know it works. It’s not just a Band-Aid. It’s a good long-term solution.