Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Thomas E. Blackburn
PORTLAND - Portland has the fourth-highest homeless population per capita in the nation, and Bayside is the area most affected by this statistic. The concern many Bayside residents share is whether the challenge of helping the homeless is being properly managed.
Seventy-one percent of the homeless in Portland are considered "situational." They receive services for only 14 days or fewer, on average.
The other 29 percent are considered "chronic." The 50 or 60 individuals who make up this population are frequently mentally ill or have substance abuse issues; many have been homeless for years. It is this group that needs better management and housing.
The following issues need to be addressed:
• Transparency: It is important to establish a benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of services to the homeless and for determining how our resources are being spent. To accomplish this, I repeatedly asked Preble Street Resource Center for financial information on its operations, but each time I was refused. The city, however, provided such information on its own programs.
• Independent analysis: While on the task force, I requested that the final report include the requirement that an independent and unbiased agency review all of Portland's homeless programs, including Preble Street Resource Center's $8 million business, to determine whether there are more effective ways to spend our resources. The task force denied my request.
• Central intake: The task force determined that a central intake process is the best way to assign a homeless person to the most appropriate housing situation.
I believe this function should be conducted by an independent agency that would be hired through competitive bidding. Separating intake from the providing of services is vital to the integrity of the process as it allows for an impartial assessment of the needs of potential consumers.
Central intake should establish these conditions for receiving services:
• A photo ID, already required in Boston, to allow the city to determine whether a consumer is meeting the requirements for receiving services, such as counseling or workfare.
• Warrant checks to prevent criminals with outstanding warrants from blending in with the homeless population.
• Workfare: People seeking General Assistance are required to work. This policy can be expanded to include the homeless.
• Payment: A consumer who can pay for any part of the services he or she receives should be required to do so.
Preble Street Resource Center's operations have resulted in Bayside's unwilling sacrifice of its quality of life. Per capita, Bayside has one of the highest populations of homeless in the nation. The neighborhood thus offers fertile ground for criminal behavior, such as the sale of prescription drugs.
The outside courtyard at Preble Street Resource Center, where much of this behavior takes place, is also called the "pharmacy." This area should be closed to stop the daily criminal activity that occurs there.
Bayside is the last underdeveloped area on Portland's peninsula. It offers great promise for economic development, which would reduce our tax burden, attract new businesses and jobs and grow our population. The high concentration of chronic homeless in a few blocks along Preble Street and the panhandlers who occupy many intersections are an impediment to economic growth.
Portland offers generous services to those in need, including housing, meals, medical care, mental-health and substance-abuse counseling and even lobbying by Homeless Voices for Justice. Indeed, Preble Street Resource Center is one of very few open-access shelters in the country. Only registered sex offenders or those with a history of violence are refused services.
Should these services and low-barrier access be continued? Given the dire financial straits of state and federal governments, will the city continue to be reimbursed for these services? If not, will taxpayers pick up the tab?
Clearly, we need to change our current practice of having homeless people sleep on narrow mats less than a foot from their neighbors. The chronically homeless should be housed in small, permanent, supportive housing facilities spread throughout the city. These small group homes would blend into their host neighborhoods while affording a better quality of life to consumers and encouraging them to be accountable for their actions.
Residents of Bayside commonly believe that some of our social service providers enable the homeless to continue in their plight. An independent analysis could disprove this notion once and for all -- or perhaps not.
Thomas E. Blackburn, a resident of Portland's Bayside neighborhood, was a member of the Homeless Prevention Task Force, which issued its report last November.