Guest Commentary: Yes, there are solutions to homeless problem

In 2015, Homer Williams visited San Antonio, Texas, on a business trip to consult on an urban development project that needed some expertise. During this trip, Williams read an article in the local paper about an innovative, “one-stop” service center for the homeless called Haven for Hope.

The center was designed following 18 months of research on over 200 homeless shelters across the country. In 2010, the 22-acre campus with 32 nonprofit service providers became fully operational in San Antonio, serving 750 people and providing safe shelter for an additional 750 homeless individuals living on the streets.

Turns out there are solutions, and there is hope to solve the homeless problem.

This private, nonprofit became a reality by working collaboratively with city and county leaders and the faith-based community to identify best practices from other transformational campuses across the country. The founders of Haven for Hope and leaders of San Antonio developed a blueprint to successfully help individuals and families identify the root causes of their homelessness. The “one-stop” campus provides these individuals with all the resources needed to get back to independent and productive lives.

Prior to Haven for Hope, like the current situation in Portland, many organizations in San Antonio served the homeless in some capacity; however, their services were geographically and administratively disconnected. A lack of reliable transportation limited physical access to services in disparate locations, and tedious paperwork processes were often duplicated between agencies complicating the process for the homeless. By bringing service providers together, through location and collaboration, Haven for Hope improved the accessibility and efficiency of resources.

Williams returned to Portland with a new vision, which was similar to past, successful real estate developments, such as the Forest Heights neighborhood in southwest Portland, Portland’s Pearl District, and the South Waterfront. This time, in lieu of developing large-scale, market-rate housing for families, Williams created Oregon Harbor of Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to building safe shelters for Portland’s homeless emulating the success of San Antonio’s Haven for Hope.

In 2016, he got busy developing this final project, building something for people with the most need, the homeless scattered across Portland. Williams said at the time, “For five decades, I built housing for the baby boomers, and now that I am retired, I started a nonprofit to develop a community for the downtrodden. And the fastest growing demographic of the homeless are these same baby boomers. With one natural disaster, like an earthquake, all those baby boomers with $400 in savings are going to be in trouble.”

Little did anyone expect we would experience the first global pandemic in 100 years.

Williams’ first target to shelter the homeless was Terminal 1, a multi-acre parcel north of the Pearl District on the Willamette River. Working with architects and engineers, a master plan was modeled after Haven for Hope’s campus in San Antonio. With plan in hand, Williams organized Portland’s leaders to rally around a development concept with a proven record of saving the lives of homeless in our major cities.

Unfortunately, Williams quickly learned that the Portland of yesteryear, when city leaders joined together to create nationally acclaimed urban plans, no longer existed. The new leadership of Portland was not interested in solving problems, but instead demonstrated a penchant for growing a cottage industry of bureaucracies – a homeless industrial complex of government agencies and nonprofits — committed to serving the homeless and mentally ill while they live on the streets.

This nonprofit complex is committed to the “Housing First” solution, a federal program created and managed by Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., that control hundreds of millions of program dollars to build affordable housing for the homeless. Quickly, Williams pivoted and made a $7 million offer for Wapato, an incarceration facility developed in 2005 by Multnomah County for 500 inmates for $56 million but never opened or operated. Wapato had remained empty for over 10 years. But city leaders refused his offer and instead chose to sell the property to a local developer for $5 million, who turned around and sold it to philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer for $6 million. Fortunately, Alan Evans entered the scene, and did what Williams originally proposed — turned Wapato into a fully functioning nonprofit center to help the homeless.

Today, thanks to private individuals, the facility known as the Bybee Lakes Hope Center services 380 homeless individuals who commit to staying off the streets, becoming employed, and completing a nine-month program to address mental health, drug addiction or other barriers. The program eventually transitions individuals into their own homes and supports their productive transition into jobs and society.

Despite the lack of interest from the city at every attempt, Williams did not give up and eventually convinced city leaders to lease city land located on Naito Parkway to construct a $5 million, 100-bed Navigation Center designed as a low-barrier shelter for people camping on the streets.

Shelters like the Navigation Center, campuses like Haven for Hope, and facilities like Bybee Lakes Hope Center are the first step for people to transition to “housing” as opposed to camping on cold, hard sidewalks. Street life in Portland is full of dangerous predators like drug dealers, sex traffickers, criminals on the run, and people with severe and sometimes violent mental illness. Street life is not compassionate, and most homeless with limited solutions risk becoming more addicted to easily accessible and cheap street drugs.

The media has highlighted promises like Mayor Wheeler’s plan to develop three campuses of 500 safe spaces each and Gov. Kotek’s emergency declaration to create hundreds more safe spaces for the homeless. Both need to be acted on – now. Like Commissioner Dan Ryan’s Safe Rest Villages offering tiny homes in a secured service hub, we need to create thousands of safe spaces for the homeless. In the Supreme Court case Martin v. Boise “ … cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds available for their homeless population.”

So, unless we start accepting the philanthropic collaboration of leaders like Homer Williams, or start producing safe spaces for our homeless with the significant tax revenue generated by the Metro tax on individual incomes, our homeless will continue to suffer — unable to get a good night’s sleep, a belly full of food, clean clothes, or a hot shower with a restroom facility. And we will continue to call ourselves a compassionate community while simply allowing our fellow citizens to camp on the cold concrete without assisting and caring for the root cause of what led them to these circumstances.

Some individuals do have severe mental illness and some are dangerous to themselves or others, requiring medication and professional care with daily monitoring. And, of course, there is a significant population of the homeless that are addicted to drugs. Newer drugs like fentanyl and ISO produce an addiction that is unprecedented. But over time, with much care, treatment and trust building, programs around the country have proven that individuals can recover from addiction, heal traumas, stabilize mental health, and rebuild their lives — and get off the streets. We should not give up or turn away dedicated leaders and programs like Homer Williams and Harbor of Hope.

Left untreated, many of the homeless we see every day on our city streets will succumb to an undignified and inhumane death. We can prevent these daily unnecessary deaths with programs like the one Williams envisioned and with resources already in our country’s coffers. Unless we act now, the Portland Metro Area will continue to be defined by the reality of people living in tents or tarps, in rodent- and disease-infested squalor, with no running water, with drugs available 24/7, and in a culture of sex trading, sexual abuse, physical assault, theft and robbery, destruction of property, overdoses, and even murder.

Matt Bordonaro serves as development director for Homer Williams’ non-profit helping agency, Oregon Harbor of Hope, which is based in Portland.


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