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Portland's Progress on Homelessness

Compared to Vancouver, a better funded, more 'bottom-up' approach.

Christine McLaren 5 Aug

Christine McLaren is a reporter for The Tyee.

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Mayors with plans: Portland's Adams, Vancouver's Robertson.

[Editor's note: Each of us views a city through a distinctly personal lens. Tyee reporter Christine McLaren visited Portland recently and found it superior to her home base of Vancouver, B.C. by three criteria that matter most to her. Previously: Is the city welcoming to young creative people? And is it bicycle friendly?. Last in her series, today: Which city deals more effectively with homelessness?]

Portland and Vancouver have one very specific goal in common. Both have vowed that by 2015 the cities will defeat homelessness. It's a campaign that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson staked his career on. Elected last year, he's given himself a mere seven years to do it.

Other cities across Canada have taken on similar plans as well, including Calgary, Toronto and Lethbridge. But Portland has a head start on all of them. In 2004 the city released its 10-year plan, Home Again, signed by Mayor Vera Katz and mayor-elect Tom Potter, and the current government has remained strongly committed.

Today, while they still have a ways to go, Portland homelessness agencies boast encouraging statistics.

Since 2004, according to the 2008 annual report, Portland has housed 1,795 families, moved 1,923 chronically homeless people and 2,348 other homeless households into housing, and opened or begun developing 1,394 permanent supportive units. They have a retention rate between 70 and over 90 per cent.

The main reason, according to those on the frontlines? The Portland system works in a way that many Vancouver housing advocates dream ours will too one day: from the bottom up.

Paying a million to JOIN

When the City of Portland developed its 10-year plan to end homelessness, it dramatically shifted its structure of funding. With a newly formed "housing first" policy -- something Vancouver has had since the '70s -- the city made a decision. As it expanded its financial investments for housing, instead of coming up with projects themselves and funding the implementation of them, they directed much of the money instead into a flexible rent assistance program that would be open to the many agencies already working with street homeless people throughout the city.

JOIN is one of those agencies. Previously, JOIN had a yearly budget of less than $100,000 and depended on funding for specific projects for anything on top of that. Now their budget is more than $1 million, and it is up to them how that money is used.

"The city created a local pool... that allows us, as the provider, to essentially pull out whatever amount we need to help the individual get into permanent housing. So it gives us a lot of flexibility around what we spend the money on," says JOIN executive director Mark Jolin.

The majority of the time, the money goes toward turning the utilities on, or paying first and last month's rent for an individual moving into housing. But if the person has, say, a debt owed to a previous landlord that is restricting them from finding housing, or needs a bus pass to get to a new job that will help them pay their rent, JOIN can pay for that, and they can do it almost immediately.

With such autonomy, Jolin says, credible organizations that have been working with the homeless for years can use their expertise to decide how money should be allocated on an individual basis, instead of wasting time and money on a rigid, cookie-cutter system run by government people who don't interact with the homeless every day. He says it's made all the difference in the world.

The organizations are then held accountable to the money they're allocated in order for them to continue receiving funding.

"If I can say hey, with that much money I'll get 220 households in this year and I'll have a retention rate of 80 per cent, they say OK, that's what we're going to hold you accountable for," says Jolin. "It's not that internally we're not looking at the investments that we're making in people, it's just that the city isn't dictating, 'Well, you can't spend it on this, and you have to spend it on that.'"

Vancouver's 'deadly' politics

In B.C., housing policy works much differently. Because the majority of what happens is dictated by the province and BC Housing, even projects brought forward by the city itself rely on provincial approval for funding, making for a far slower and more rigid process.

According to Judy Graves, homelessness outreach coordinator for the City of Vancouver, it is this top-down structure that has created the massive problems Vancouver has today.

Planners and policy analysts read research reports, and make recommendations about funding, she says. Then they publish the expression of interest for a project they've decided on -- say, a shelter, or some number of supportive housing for people with mental illness -- and interested parties submit for the funding to implement it.

"That's what has created the Downtown Eastside... nobody's got secure funding, so they lurch along on one- or two-year funding models. It sets all of the service providers in competition with each other, so the politics are deadly. It creates a lack of honesty," she says.

"What you wind up with is no stability, no comprehensive planning. It doesn't give local responsiveness to the actual need."

Cookie's story

As an example Graves pulls a photo out of her purse of a grinning aboriginal man in his late 20s, his arms wrapped around a caramel-colored dog.

"This is Cookie," she says, referring to the man.

Graves has known Cookie on Vancouver's streets since he was 14. He has severe fetal alcohol syndrome, she said, and has been addicted to drugs and alcohol since she's known him. In the last few years she's watched every step of the agonizing process as he's picked himself up and gotten himself squeaky clean minus a little pot here and there. She nearly cries with pride as she talks about it. The dog Cookie hugs in the photo he just got recently, she tells me. He named it Fiona, "not after the princess, but because it's the most beautiful name in the world," he told Graves.

Just recently, though, Cookie's housing program lost funding and he went back onto the street. Now they're housing him in the Stanley Hotel, "where there's only hard drugs," Graves says, and where all his hard work -- work he did, she emphasizes -- could be reversed in days. If she could, Graves would find Cookie a home with a community of people like him, young people with fetal alcohol, with a den mother to watch over them, not too tightly, but enough to make sure they're at the table for dinner, a place with stability. But with no flexibility in funding, her hands are tied. It makes no sense, she says.

"People can't fit just into these models, and we know that because they're on the street. If they could just fit in, they wouldn't be there. Anybody who had another option would never even dream of it."

Money matters

It would be wrong to portray Portland as a city that has solved homelessness. Oregon Housing and Community Services finds the number of homeless people across Oregon rising significantly as the recession ratchets up unemployment numbers. In fact, Oregon has more homeless people per capita than any other state, according the U.S. government.

And this month more homeless people became visible in downtown Portland after a law prohibiting sitting on the sidewalk was ruled unconstitutional.

Still, some of the policies I learned about that do seem to be working in Portland might bear scrutiny by politicians in Vancouver and the B.C. government.

Regardless, Portland has one final advantage over Vancouver: a whole whack of federal funding.

In the United States, federal funding for housing programs still flows through the veins of its states and cities. Canada, from the early '80s to the early '90s, cut almost $2 billion from national housing funds and later cancelled all funding for new housing, transferring the majority of the administration of housing programs to the provinces. If the City of Vancouver, like Portland, could tap into a national fund, it might have a chance at reaching its goal of ending homelessness. But as it stands, such hopes are as only as healthy or slim as the current provincial budget.

"Ten-year plans work if they have funding. We have a 10-year plan that nobody's funding. That doesn't work," says Graves.

"If we had a budget like they have, we'd end it too."  [Tyee]

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