letter from Business for a Better Portland
Letter to City and County Leaders on Homeless Services Budget
June 3, 2021
Mayor Ted Wheeler
Chair Deborah Kafoury
Business for a Better Portland is an innovative chamber of commerce that represents over 400 companies and organizations. Our unique approach to advocacy for business interests ensures that the volume of a member’s voice is not determined by the amount of their dues. Our advocacy for shared prosperity is guided by a fundamental understanding that the well-being of the business community is inherently tied to that of the entire community. One only needs to look at conditions on our streets to recognize that the rising income inequality which has fueled human suffering and social instability is not good for business. Our members look to us to navigate the complex and nearly impenetrable public policy arena on their behalf and to advocate for the policies and funding priorities that will benefit not only their immediate bottom line but also the social stability that will create greater shared prosperity for all.
Thank you for working together to allocate resources to both provide housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, as well as to establish near-term alternative safe camping options for people who currently have no choice but to sleep on the street. Homelessness is a problem our region has struggled with for decades. While its origins are traceable to the systematic defunding of the federal social safety net and neoliberal economic policies that have led to extreme income inequality, we must not let the scale of the problem deter us from taking decisive action to ameliorate the suffering of our fellow Portlanders who are in crisis and support our community’s businesses who also find themselves in crisis as they must step in as ad hoc social service and public safety providers.
Until recently, efforts to advance solutions have been stymied not only by a scarcity of resources, but also a lack of political will to accept the difficult trade-offs of short-term solutions. We applaud the arrival of your “all hands on deck” approach and hope it means that we are finally ready to prioritize action over the qualms of select constituencies. As City Commissioner Dan Ryan so aptly called out at last week’s meeting of the Executive Committee of the A Home For Everyone board, public demand for safe camping locations provides an excellent opportunity for our city’s private landowners to step up and participate in this critical community initiative. We trust that those who have been most insistent about the need for safe camping areas outside of downtown will be the first to step up and collaborate with the city to secure land for them. Intense, sustained and generous collaboration among all stakeholders will be required to ensure the success of these programs.
We were honored to play an active role in the HereTogether coalition that brought together a wide array of service providers, business leaders and community stakeholders to advance one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic responses to the housing crisis in the country. Passage of the measure in May 2020 was a watershed moment for our region. We fully support that vision, and remain committed to the philosophy that housing--not shelter--is the solution to homelessness. Housing is not only the most sensible and humane solution, it is also the most cost effective. As dozens of Portland-area business, government and community leaders learned during our 2018 “Best Practices Trip” to Brooklyn, New York, the New York City “right to shelter” approach costs billions to maintain and has become so vast that it requires its own police force. We must not fall prey to the temptation of simplistic solutions that put people out of sight but do not give them a safe place to call home.
Still, businesses and people living on the street alike are united in calling for safe, sanitary and organized places for people to go until they can be housed. The humanitarian crisis is plain for all to see, and constant political and community conflict over sweeps serves no one. We are at a pivotal moment now that multiple significant sources of funding are available to finally enable us to both operationalize the voter-supported vision of providing housing and supportive services to people who need them, as well as provide safe, sanitary and organized places for people to go until they can be housed.
Embracing the pragmatism of safe rest villages means letting go of ideal answers in the near term: we should never equate a tent or a pod with access to sanitation with housing. But how we build these safe rest villages can demonstrate our intent. Safe rest villages give us an opportunity to be more efficient and effective in how we get resources to people; they should never be mistaken for a solution in and of themselves. We must develop a village model that includes pathways out of them from the very beginning, which means supportive services must be co-located: employment, rental assistance and behavioral health resources are all essential if these villages are to succeed. It is also imperative that we distribute these villages equitably throughout the city, lest they become “out of sight, out of mind.”
As we evaluate any of these programs, we must choose metrics that align with our values, namely that housing is a human right. There may be stakeholders who suggest that the Martin v. Boise framework should set our Region’s and City’s guiding standard, but this is misguided. The so-called “standard” set by Martin vs. Boise is not something we should aspire to. The enduring value of that decision is that law enforcement tools will not fix homelessness. Penalizing people for living outside is a misguided and flatly unconstitutional strategy that falsely assumes that these people most directly impacted have any choice about where to go. In no sense is pure compliance with this important, yet failingly minimal, baseline set by the courts in line with the bold aspirations of our community. A focus on Martin v. Boise alone distracts from the imperative to secure the resources to offer people experiencing houselessness humane and voluntary options. Our goal as a city should be to create public environments that are conducive to commerce because they are welcoming for all, not ones that are defined by exclusion and enforcement. Rather than setting the low bar of available shelter beds, we should instead be striving for year over year decreases in unsheltered and chronic homelessness until we have successfully reached an end to homelessness.
We must invest not only in data collection, but in communications resources so that the public can clearly and regularly understand what progress is being made. We who have engaged closely on these issues see the passion and commitment of our elected leaders and their team members, and we see the staggering complication of these issues. We know that you have been asked to do too much with too little for too long. And yet we speak for our members who are beyond frustrated by our apparent inability to collectively improve appallingly bad conditions for both street-level businesses and people who have no choice but to subsist on those same streets. Besides the social and economic drivers of the ongoing housing crisis, there is nothing more detrimental to our efforts to address homelessness than the appearance of inaction and poor results. Confidence in government is approaching a nadir, and no time should be wasted in reversing that trend.
Thank you for your commitment to Portland and Multnomah County. We are grateful for your service and look forward to a better community for all.
Ashley Henry, Executive Director
Business for a Better Portland (BBPDX)
Business for a Better Portland • 911 NE Davis Street, Portland, OR, 97232 • www.bbpdx.org