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
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
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
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
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
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.