Less Than a Home

A closer look at Portland's housing and homeless crisis

By Katie Mays

Last week, a resident at Dignity Village was so excited in the uptick in her housekeeping business, she couldn’t wait to sit down with me to look at housing options. She’s the epitome of the American experience—working incredibly hard to lift herself out of poverty, hustling every moment to make a living for herself… and saddled with a mountain of debt, accrued when the economy tanked. Being part of the working class, she was among the hardest hit. 

She landed at Dignity Village with the intention of putting all of her energy into refocusing her business. We found an open wait-list for subsidized housing, and sent in the required pre-application. Weeks later, she got a call saying her name had been added to the wait-list, and she can expect an opening for her in 10 years. That’s not her only option, but you can’t help but get discouraged when such an insurmountable obstacle exists.

I work at Dignity Village, a tiny house community for the homeless in Portland. My job is administrative support, as well as connecting residents of Dignity Village with social services, with the goal of finding permanent housing. I’m earnest in my attempt to provide assistance to folks who have been here a long time, but they know better than I that my efforts are fruitless without adequate options at the other end. In truth, many folks whom I work with fall through the cracks.

When I started at Dignity Village, I encountered a spectrum of attitudes toward my role there—especially from one person. His outright disdain for my presence was so severe that it passed into comical. I kept trying to break the ice—despite his usual response of walking out of the conversation, often mid-sentence. The more I learned about him, the more intriguing his story became. Before moving into Dignity Village, he had been homeless on the streets for more than 20 years. When he arrived, he didn’t speak to anyone for months. Eventually, he started writing notes to communicate; later he began actually talking. 

I had posted information about a new affordable housing development opening last summer. This person had an income from Social Security. He asked for some help with his application, and amazingly, was able to move into his brand new, $433-per-month studio apartment in September. The closer he got to moving to his new apartment, the more anxious he felt. In an eight-page handwritten note—more of a stream of consciousness for all his concerns—he rambled about the sorry state of affairs among homeless services and the government. These days, I’m treated to his views when I visit his new apartment, stopping by to make sure he’s adjusting and figuring out his new life.

It takes time to undo the trauma of being so long on the street. I can’t fathom the lack of trust he had in other people. And it speaks volumes about the value of community in places like Dignity Village that this person could eventually begin to socially engage again.

Dignity Village was founded as a protest and social action back in 2001, demanding more options for people experiencing homelessness. Through shopping cart parades and temporary encampments, organizers earned public support for their message. The city offered a piece of land for the camp to establish themselves. Dignity Village, Inc. registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and was contracted by the City of Portland to manage their “transitional housing campground” at Sunderland Yard in NE Portland. 

That was 15 years ago. It’s not hyperbole to say that everyone in Portland has noticed the increase in homelessness in the last year. You see it under the bridges, in tents popping up in obvious sites. Whether the houseless are literally spilling into the streets, or are fed up with the notion that their existence should be hidden, the visibility is there. It’s an increase in struggle for the middle class, and an inadequate safety net. When average rents go up $100 in a city, homelessness increases by 15 percent. In 2015, average rents in Multnomah County increased by $104. 

Mayor Hales declared a state of emergency for housing and homelessness. In one of the more visible actions, the mayor’s office ordered all city bureaus to stop sweeping homeless camps until a better solution is put in place. Much of the response has been grassroots and community-driven, akin to that of the original Dignity Village advocates. What started as a radical solution has now become increasingly more institutionalized by Portland and other municipalities. Newer sites like Right 2 Dream Too offer temporary tent-camping rather than the tiny homes and longer-term, transitional approach of Dignity Village. Both are needed; neither will end homelessness.

The current state of affairs underscores an acute problem in Portland today: a lack of affordable housing. We know that it’s far cheaper to keep someone in housing than to start again once they’ve lost it. And the experience of being homeless is an experience of trauma. 

Data collected through Portland’s biannual homeless street count shows an overrepresentation of people of color experiencing homelessness. Our domestic violence shelters have a wait list. A woman, fearing for her life and wanting to escape an abuser, might not be able to access the help she needs in the moment it would be the most impactful. Injustices wrapped in injustice; to unravel is to undo the foundations of our society. Maybe that’s where we should be looking. When we set up the expectation that homeless = criminal, addict, bum, where does the blame lie in the stories we tell? Are we to blame for collectively limiting our potential?

There’s no common reason why a person becomes homeless. And there’s not a perfect solution to homelessness. Portland should be willing to try anything—to be smart about evaluating what works, and to be bold enough to admit defeat. Portland has a variety of innovative programs that address many of the specific frustrations and needs of a person experiencing homelessness: the lack of storage for your things, the needle exchanges, the mobile grocery stores, the public toilets, the meals, the showers, the substitute addresses. But let’s not lose sight of the intention of these programs: They serve to improve the experience, to reduce some of the struggles and barriers that unhoused people face in order to get off the streets—service delivery, rather than solution delivery. The totality of our attempts add up to less than a home.

Using parking garages as temporarily habitable spaces is a possible way to improve the homeless experience—as is opening up church parking lots or other public spaces for RVs and vans to park overnight, maybe with portable toilets or showers. There is a need for safety off the streets, but the single biggest problem is a lack of housing stock, across the board. From each point of intervention, a fundamental flaw remains: Vouchers won’t work if there isn’t an adequate, affordable apartment for that household.

The conversation has to be “yes, and....” We need safety off the streets, decriminalization of living unsheltered, and rent assistance for families who are struggling. We need eviction protections and support for tenant rights. We need income opportunities and mental health support and more substance abuse programs and an endless list of other resources. We need affordable housing, now.

Katie Mays is a Program Support Specialist at Dignity Village.