Homeless Voices for Justice wishes to respond to Staff Writer Randy Billings’ May 6 article “Bayside at rock bottom.” We are a Portland-based grassroots organization that works for social change with people who live in homelessness and poverty. We have closely followed the conversation about the affordable-housing crisis in Portland. We welcome the attention that the issue has received lately. We see our role as including the perspectives of those who are homeless and in poverty – people who are often excluded from policy and program developments that affect them.

In this vein, we find that Mr. Billings’ article missed an opportunity to seriously speak to the structural and situational roots of the affordable-housing crisis in Portland, a topic Mr. Billings has focused on in his prior articles. Instead, we find that the article on Bayside sensationalizes the real human suffering that has resulted from growing economic inequality and the related reduction of safety net programs in Portland.

One gets the impression from “Bayside at rock bottom” that those who are homeless are a monolith. The photography paired with Mr. Billings’ article contributes to a number of negative tropes concerning homelessness. We wonder why Mr. Billings did not commit more of his article to objectively assessing shelter populations in Portland, which include adolescents, single adults, elderly people, veterans, people who struggle with mental health and substance use disorders, and families. We feel Mr. Billings missed an opportunity to seriously share the diverse input and stories of those in the population he wrote about. We feel the overall thrust of his article blames people experiencing homelessness for conditions in which they do not choose to live.

According to Portland’s Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, the city’s shelters held an average of 523 individuals per night in April. The social services center Preble Street alone services hundreds of people every day, many of whom are looking for just basic amenities, let alone a path out of homelessness. But the need for affordable homes in Portland is immense. Gentrification and the closure of a handful of other shelters in Portland over the past decade have only exacerbated this need. The opioid crisis, which claimed 418 Mainers in 2017, an estimated two-thirds of whom were uninsured, has added a new kind of brutality to life in poverty and homelessness today. We believe Portland needs to address priorities in development and social services and put people first.

The fair market two-bedroom rent in Portland is $1,348 a month; to comfortably afford it, a tenant would have to earn an hourly wage of $25.92. We notice new apartments being built that are clearly marketed to a more affluent consumer base.

Meanwhile, very little affordable, or even workforce, housing has been opened to those who need it. Apartments that could be rented to those with lower incomes have been purchased, renovated and then rented at new rents beyond what vouchers will cover.

The so-called “inclusionary zoning” regulation has done little to cut against this trend and make available more affordable units for those with lower incomes. The recent City Council decision against increasing the percentage of required affordable-housing units shows how little councilors care about those with lower incomes.

We feel Mr. Billings’ article was slanted against the people experiencing homelessness in Portland and against the service providers trying to help. We don’t think this blame is fair. While Preble Street, or any agency, for that matter, can set limitations and norms for clients who access the space, service providers cannot singlehandedly solve any neighborhood issue that is symptomatic of the profound lack of affordable housing and a viable safety net. Solutions to tensions in the Bayside neighborhood must be grounded in deliberate reforms that give people in poverty greater access to basic resources – like homes, food, rehabilitation services and casework.

We know that many Bayside neighbors, homeless and housed alike, are concerned about the quality of their livelihoods as they navigate a situation that is getting worse. We assert that everyone in Portland has a shared interest in truly addressing homelessness with positive policy change and reform. We advocate that safety net programs must be defended and expanded and that strategic controls on Portland’s development must be introduced. Solutions that don’t put people’s basic needs first are bound to exacerbate homelessness, leaving people in poverty even more deserted.

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