Elevating Homelessness Requires Systematic Change
SALEM — Breaking New Ground, Oregon’s five-year Statewide Housing Plan, articulates how Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) will pave the way for more Oregonians to have access to housing opportunities and achieve housing stability and self-sufficiency through six policy priorities. These priorities include equity and racial justice, ending unsheltered homelessness for Oregon’s Veterans and children, permanent supportive housing, bridging the affordable rental housing gap through an ambitious rental housing production agenda, expanding homeownership opportunities and addressing the housing needs of rural Oregon.
A thriving Oregon can be measured by the economy, housing stability and the opportunity and freedom it affords its residents. Equally as important is how we as a community coalesce to address critical issues that impact all Oregonians. Across the state, from Portland to Pendleton to Brookings, one of the most critical issues Oregon faces is homelessness. Oregon must create an efficient and effective system to provide services and hope to those living in shelters, in their cars, and on the street.
Oregonians experiencing homelessness has risen alongside rents and housing prices, which compound personal and societal causes of homelessness. When rents are rising and vacancy rates are very low, it becomes even more difficult for people to access stable housing, especially those struggling with addiction, mental health, domestic violence or other personal situations. Homelessness and housing instability make it harder to find and keep a job, manage medical conditions, and learn in school.
As we seek to better understand what “causes” an individual or family to become homeless, it is important that we ground ourselves in truth and dispel myths on what precipitates homelessness. Homelessness is multi-dimensional, and it is important that we do not distort or diminish the humanity of those experiencing homelessness. The “causes” are a mix of structural and individual factors that are interrelated. Individual factors can include low-wage jobs, poor physical health, mental health problems, alcohol and drugs issues, bereavement, personal financial crisis, emergency medical situations and experience of the criminal justice system.
However, there are wider structural forces involved such as poverty, inequality, housing supply and affordability, unemployment, access to affordable healthcare, institutional racism, and welfare policies. Each year Oregonians evaluate the extent to which our neighbors are experiencing homelessness as a part of the Point-in-Time Count. According to Oregon’s 2019 Point-in-Time Count, at a minimum, 15,800 of Oregon’s community members were experiencing homelessness —a 13% increase from 2017. Black/African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos are overrepresented among persons experiencing homelessness nationally, and we see similar disparities here in Oregon. Research demonstrates that this is a direct correlation to centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, and child welfare. These inequities build and stack upon each other. For lasting change to occur, institutional barriers across government and private institutions must be dismantled to eliminate the racial disparities and systemic racism impacting our communities of color across Oregon. OHCS knows this will be a vital effort in preventing and ending homelessness among marginalized communities, particularly those communities over represented in our homeless population.
Recent legislative investments provide OHCS with historic levels of funding specifically for services targeted to people experiencing homelessness. This funding increased from the existing service level of $10 million to $40 million. OHCS received an additional $18 million that will help engage new partners and create a platform for increasing targeted services, evidence-based programs, and innovative solutions.
Ending homelessness means that every community has a comprehensive system in place to prevent homelessness, or to ensure homelessness is a brief, one-time experience. There is substantial momentum around ending homelessness, particularly for veterans and children. OHCS will focus services and resources to drive improvement in housing stability and collaborate with partners to end veterans’ homelessness in Oregon and build a system in which every child has a safe and stable place to call home.
OHCS and our community partners are establishing a coordinated approach to respond to Oregon’s homelessness crisis through simultaneous efforts. Improving data collection and analysis will create better programs and systems that align with proven practices. Using data to drive decisions and measure outcomes of homeless services funds, OHCS will enact the goals of ending family and veteran homelessness and addressing racial disparities.
If you would like to support neighbors experiencing homelessness in your community, contact your local Community Action Agency