Yesterday I learned a lot about our local homeless problem via a Salem City Club program, "A Profile of Salem's Homeless Population: Our Unique Challenges."
Jimmy Jones (Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency) and Ron Hays (Community Resource Trust) presented a lot of interesting information about how many people are homeless in Salem/Marion County, and why they're in this dire situation.
I'll share some of those facts below.
First, though, I'll get to the bottom line of what I grasped from the talks by Jones and Hays, and some follow-up Googling into the broader question of what really works to help the homeless.
(1) Our homeless problem is so bad, and the currently available resources to help people are so limited, right now the plain truth is... we're screwed.
(2) What's needed is pretty damn simple: permanent supportive housing where the homeless not only get a place to live, but support services to help them get their lives together.
(3) This costs -- no big surprise -- money. A lot of it. It really can only come from taxes. Meaning, government. The private sector can help, but the public sector holds the key to housing our homeless.
I realize this isn't cheery news, especially given the Trump administration's antipathy to government programs that help ordinary people. (If you're a defense contractor or a billionaire, Trump's proposed budget is very kind to you.)
But we've got to face reality. Here's some facts from the scribbled notes I took at the City Club meeting and some other sources I've linked to.
- In Marion County (maybe Marion/Polk) there are 1,078 chronically homeless people; 500 in Salem.
- Overall, there are 5,710 homeless, including the most and least vulnerable.
- This is larger than any other small city, and just outside the top 10 overall nationally.
- Marion County gets much less money per homeless person than other counties, like Multnomah.
- Mayor Bennett's homeless plan would only house 20% (100 people) of the 500 chronically homeless.
- Bennett estimates there are 1,500 to 2,000 homeless people in Salem, so that leaves 1,400 to 1,900 without homes even if the 100 person voucher program is implemented.
- The rental vacancy rate in Salem is 1% now; 4% is required for successful transition programs out of homelessness.
- Thus there is a need to invest in subsidized and affordable housing.
- About 16,500 subsidized/affordable housing units are needed in Marion and Polk counties.
- Only 180 units are being built at the affordable housing Portland Road Apartments project.
- The average cost of building an affordable housing unit in Marion County is about $142,000; in Oregon, $249,000.
- So between $2.3 billion and $4.1 billion (yes, billion) needs to be spent on affordable housing in Marion/Polk counties.
Like I said, this isn't cheery news.
I readily admit that I'm not an expert on homelessness. But I regularly talk with homeless advocates here in Salem. And I try to follow the broad outlines of what's happening with efforts to deal with our local homeless problem.
Along that line, today's Googling led me to a marvelous resource on the what's happening front: the CANDO (downtown area) neighborhood association blog. (That link leads to a recent post about the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Task Force, which was pretty much a wasted effort, from what I can tell; scroll down for a treasure trove of archived posts.)
This excerpt from a February 2017 CANDO blog post, "Salem's Homeless Chronic," does a good job of summing up the problem.
"One, Salem's approach to homelessness, like its approach to so many things, has been habitual, long-lasting, and patterned over a long period of time to conform to outdated norms. Specifically, the City has, year after year, let religious institutions such as UGM, The Salvation Army, and others provide its residents emergency shelter, with little if any support from the City, while continuing to fund, year in and year out, the same favored social service programs, without regard for whether those programs are, in fact, effective in addressing community needs.
"Two, the City has, as a result of its habitual, long-lasting and patterned approach to homelessness, neglected the most vulnerable, the so-called 'chronically homeless', the 'service resistant', the 'hard-to-house', those who supposedly 'don't want to be helped.' As a consequence, and as the Weekly observed, Salem has something like twice the national average of chronically homeless. That's why the downtown is the way it is, and it's only going to get worse if the City doesn't change its approach to the problem.
"We agree with the Weekly's observation that resources 'need to be used in the most effective possible manner' (really, who would disagree?). But how shockingly ignorant the statement, 'Providing a place to live or sleep may meet immediate basic needs, and that may be a needed first step.' (Emphasis added.) What other first step, dear Weekly, did you have in mind? And based on what research?
"Research has shown that providing housing first is the needed first step. So, wake up Salem Weekly. Wake up City of Salem. This is not a new idea. What's needed is permanent supportive housing, not sanctioned camping and car-camping programs. A resource center would be nice, but it won't begin to address the needs of Salem's most vulnerable - the chronically homeless.
"Salem's homeless problem is not widespread and uncontrollable, meaning it's not of 'epidemic proportions.' It's chronic; built in; systematized. It's the result of 1) capitalism, and 2) long-term neglect, and while we can't do anything about 1), we can do something about 2). Other communities have made inroads, but only after they gave up habitual, long-lasting and patterned approaches to the problem, and followed the research. C'mon Salem Weekly, help us out. Don't follow habitual thought patterns. Do your research."
That last link, "followed the research," leads here: to a Cost Savings With Permanent Supportive Housing page. Which says:
The chart illustrates the fact that the cost of permanent supportive housing is offset in most instances by reductions in emergency shelter costs and health care (physical and behavioral) costs.
This fits with a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic called "How Can the U.S. End Homelessness?" It discusses several approaches that sort of work, but have serious drawbacks. Here's how the piece ends:
Across the country, experts on homelessness have solutions they think will work best. The problem is, housing in many cities is getting more expensive every month, and as prices rise, so do the costs of programs to combat homelessness.
Meanwhile, federal funds for affordable housing have stayed at the same levels for years. So as housing costs go up, those funds are spread more thinly and help fewer people.
But if homelessness is really a problem the country wants to solve by 2020, why not increase the amount of money overall that the government spends on programs to help the homeless? Where could that money come from?
Why not stimulate the creation of affordable housing so to assist both the chronically homeless and those who are homeless temporarily? Such housing could be available to people below certain income levels, and they could qualify whether they are on the streets or are in an apartment they can’t afford.
For some, it’s hard to imagine carving out more money from the country’s budget to address these issues. But solving homelessness can help fix a lot of other problems too, including truancy from schools, food insecurity, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment. Is it possible that directing more resources toward solving homelessness could actually save society money by helping to fix its other ills at the same time?
So I come back to what seems to be the only way to solve Salem's homeless problem. Which is the only way to solve Oregon's and the nation's homeless problem.
More money. A lot more money.
The private sector, such as Mountain West Investment, which is developing the Portland Road project, isn't going to come up with the many billions of dollars needed to build the affordable/subsidized housing units needed to take care of our local homeless problem.
Only government can do this. Sure, private-public partnerships are needed, but it is foolish to believe that "the market" is going to solve Salem's homeless problem. Developers are in business to make money, not fix social problems.
Vouchers to help the homeless afford a place to live are great. However, those vouchers cost money, and building those places to live costs money.
What we have is a systemic societal problem, the way I see it. It's much the same as our health care problem. A good share of the the citizenry, including most of the Republicans who currently control the federal government, view homelessness (and also lack of medical insurance) as a personal problem.
Meaning, homeless individuals are largely responsible for their not having a place to live, as are individuals without medical insurance largely responsible for lacking access to health care.
Until we change this pervasive attitude -- that having a place to live or health care is a privilege, not a right -- it won't be possible to summon up the political will to put our tax money into programs that benefit people in need, rather than corporations, the military-industrial complex, the already wealthy, and others who currently get massive government support.
Likewise, here in Salem Mayor Bennett and other City officials are determined to waste a billion dollars on an unneeded Third Bridge. They need to shift their passion to seeking funds for helping the homeless.
Likely even a billion bucks won't solve Salem's homeless problem, but it would be a damn good start.