“The woman declared that she was all for the building of a drug and alcohol rehab center next to her city apartment except that the proposed height of the building would cast shade on her kale plants and ruin her plants.”
Portland, Oregon was the host of the 2016 National Healthcare for the Homeless Conference and Policy symposium. I found it to be a fascinating mix of liberal residual hippee mentalities mixed among upscale microbreweries. A blue city residing in a largely rural red state. The first thing that struck me about Portland was how clean the city was. It’s beautiful to look at with its detailed architecture, Mount Hood peering over you in the background and the Willamette River hugging some of the neatest reformed parts of town. Freshly potted plants sprinkle the windowsills and front door steps of many residential and commercial properties. One afternoon I watched teams of volunteers artistically arrange flowers and potted plants in fancy designs in a local square just for the viewing pleasure of the many young professionals who eat their lunches on the squares surrounding steps. In general there was a sense of calm in the city.
But there was one obvious difference that somewhat shatters the beautiful façade of Portland. Every 6 to 10 feet I encountered a person experiencing homelessness. A man, a woman, a child just sitting on the street. Some of them were clearly high, but many of them were not. One woman sat with a pad of paper and pencil in her hand but was stuck in a catatonic state of waiting for inspiration. Some of them were panhandling, many of them were not. Children were coloring while their parents made signs displaying their person plight. Many people were laying with their pets. The thing that struck me every day was that for the size of Portland, the number of homeless is unbelievable. Most numbers estimate between 3400-3600 people sleep on the streets of Portland every night. The lack of affordable housing and the lack of enough shelter caused the governor of Oregon to declare a state of emergency which allows homeless to sleep on the street safely without being disrupted by police, business owners or residents. The city has seemed tolerant of this and understanding of the fact that there is simply no where to shelter all of these people. It does beg the bigger question though. Why are there so many?
It seems that no part of the city with has been spared by number of visibly a visible homeless. During our travels, we took an informal poll. People working at donut shops. our taxicabs driver, local lifetime residents etc. We simply asked “Why do you think there are so many homeless in Portland?” Interestingly they all gave the same answer. They thought that because Portland was such an understanding and homeless friendly community, the people (particularly youth) were seeking out Portland as a counterculture experience. There is a pervasive feeling that these that the majority of the homeless in Portland wanted to be homeless for the experience. While many of those that we informally polled recognize that the legalization of recreational marijuana probably his added to the appeal of coming to Portland, none of them could say for certain the size of that effect. The locals seem particularly bothered that there were so many people with seemingly no end in sight. While they admitted that they felt ‘bad for the people’, they were relatively unsympathetic because they felt that this was a situation that has occurred by personal choice. When I attended a breakout session with people representing homelessness from all over the state of Oregon, I told them what the locals told us about the homeless problem in Portland. I asked if they felt that it was true; that there was a counterculture experience occurring and Portland happen to be the perfect place for it to occur. All of those representing Portland on the panel adamantly denied that any of what the common feeling was true. One CEO of a local if you federally qualified health center commented that while the summers are mild, the winters are very cold and rainy and no one would choose to be homeless and stay in Portland. I would say the same for people who are homeless in New England, in Pennsylvania, in Michigan. Many people endure these harsh winters and yet they don’t leave (which has puzzled me for years). There’s no migratory patterns for the homeless to fly south for the winter. While the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle of these two polarized viewpoints, this creates a particularly large problem for philanthropy. People do not donate to a cause in which they feel the misery of poverty is by choice. Frankly, the sympathy factor goes way down and when there’s no sympathy there’s no money. Perhaps some of the most important (and challenging) steps that Portland must take is changing public perception. Porland seems prime for the picking to lead the country in inovative solutions to minimize homelessness. A combination of finances, a youthful open minded population with well-established social and healthcare services. I look forward to watching this city’s story unfold. Press on Portland, press on.