Homelessness is a national issue many communities and individuals are grappling with. Portland is no exception. While we face this issue year round, the summer always brings an influx in the number of people living outside. This year is looking to be no exception.
At the Portland Business Alliance, we have consistently said that no human being should have to sleep outside. We need community solutions to homelessness that focus on providing everyone a safe, indoor place to sleep. Ultimately, permanent housing is the long-term solution for people facing homelessness, but as long as people are sleeping on our sidewalks or in our parks, we must recognize the need for shelter beds to accommodate them.
Though it is not always immediately apparent, progress is being made. Through the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which unites the efforts of the City of Portland and Multnomah County, more than 500 new permanent shelter beds have been created. In addition, thousands of people have been placed in permanent housing or aided in retaining the housing they have. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury led efforts to continue expanded funding to maintain this critical work.
The newly released Point in Time count of homelessness in Multnomah County shows that, while the homeless population has grown by about 10 percent, the number of unsheltered individuals has declined by 12 percent to 1,668, a level not seen since 2009. Fewer people are sleeping outside, and that can be attributed directly to leaders who have made opening more inside shelter beds a top priority. We need to thank Chair Kafoury and Mayor Wheeler for their enormous efforts — and encourage them to do even more.
The private sector has stepped up as well, offering temporary space in buildings to provide shelter for hundreds of individuals who would otherwise be living on our streets and in our parks, donating supplies to prepare shelters for occupancy, helping purchase trucks needed to move people into permanent housing, stepping up outreach efforts, employing formerly homeless individuals and contributing money to organizations on the front lines of providing services.
And yet, as the summer nears, the familiar refrain of growing homelessness in our community returns. As a property owner with parcels throughout the city, I have seen an increase in concerns being raised. The natural instinct of Portlanders is to lead with compassion, but that is strained when a subset of individuals fail to adhere to community standards or engage in illegal behaviors. That impacts the livability of our city for residents, employees and visitors; equally as important, it can create an unsafe environment for those experiencing homelessness.
While the evidence of this can be seen in downtown, it's also important to point out what is not seen. Property owners provide funding to clean a 213-block area of downtown. In 2016, more than 625 tons of garbage were picked up, up 142 tons from the previous year. With a national opioid addiction crisis, cleaning crews picked up an unprecedented number of needles. More than 16,500 needles were cleared from downtown in the 2016, versus 9,897 the year before.
As a life-long resident of Portland and an active member of the community, I want to see the city's homeless crisis get better. We need more permanent housing options for people in need, and emergency shelters for the men and women sleeping outside. We need services to help the mentally ill and drug addicted. And we need a commitment to community standards, which means enforcing laws against illegal behaviors.
Fortunately, we have elected leaders like Mayor Wheeler and Chair Kafoury who are committed to making a difference and outstanding service organizations like Central City Concern, Transition Projects, Inc., New Avenues for Youth and JOIN among others that are committed to helping homeless individuals. The issue is complex; yet, when we work together, small steps can add up in a big way.
It's unlikely that we will ever eliminate homelessness, but we must continue to work together to find creative solutions that help those in need while keeping the city safe and livable. The summer of 2017 can be a pivotal moment when the good acts of this community — however small — finally begin to outweigh the magnitude of the homelessness issue itself. Let's all be a part of the solution.