The homeless encampments in Deering Oaks and City Hall Plaza have drawn attention to the homelessness situation that for two decades has been spiraling out of control nearby in Bayside. A wider audience is waking up and evaluating the message of this moment. Overdue state involvement and federal CARES Act money holds promise for generational change in addressing homelessness in Portland.

But will that happen? It depends where the money goes.

Obviously, the highest return on investment will come from creating regional and statewide solutions and housing and vigorously supporting Portland’s years-long process of replacing the hopelessly outdated Oxford Street Shelter with a modern homeless services and housing navigation center. Those aren’t fast or simple tasks, but a new approach, a new system, is what will reap dividends in the long run.

What won’t pay off is more shelters fast-tracked into the same failed location – Bayside. Yet that’s exactly what Preble Street is proposing. Their five-year vision calls for more services and two new shelters in addition to the three shelters and multiple overflow spaces already jammed into a historically troubled two-block area. They want to convert their shuttered resource center into a permanent 40-bed shelter in part because “we own the building,” according to Preble Street’s board president. They also own the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter building, and plan to open a 30-bed women’s shelter there after transferring Teen Shelter operations to the nearby teen center. Three shelters within about an acre – surrounding a proposed 60-unit subsidized housing project – one block from two other large shelters and overflow spaces.

Conventional wisdom in the distant past indicated that concentrating social services in one area would make it simple for vulnerable people to safely and easily access help. Those days are long gone. We now know that clustering hundreds of poor, desperate, addicted, struggling people – on any given day, around 500 within the maze of one-way streets in Bayside – is counterproductive and sets them up to fail. Does anyone need more than 30 years of proof that adding more shelters in Bayside is a terrible idea?

Despite grumbling about gentrification, rejecting additional shelters is not about property values, it’s about valuing people; it’s not a war on the poor waged by fortunate homeowners. Opposition to more shelters comes from widely varied perspectives. The neighborhood is home to many immigrant families with children, low-income and formerly homeless individuals, and small businesses. All deserve a safe, healthy environment, but none has the resources to push back against a social-services behemoth like Preble Street.

Shelter clients recognize as well as anyone the ironies and deep deficiencies of the system that serves them. A homeless man I know recently said he was proud of the protest at City Hall, but Portland and Preble Street have attracted too many people, from all over. He said Bayside is where “… you can get anything you want. You don’t have to do a damn thing. It’s enabling.” What did he think would make things better? “Shut it down. Shut the whole thing down, get it out of there.”

Shutting everything down probably isn’t the answer, but moving in a new direction is the only path forward. The state must examine assumptions about the agencies and philosophies that have dominated the conversation, and commit to fund efficient, evidence-based solutions, not emotional appeals and intangible outcomes. Precious limited monies must not be used to prop up disproven models and policies that maintain people within their homelessness but provide no lasting solutions. Concentration for the sake of convenience has proved catastrophic. The state must design a truly new system and a new approach, with new partners, in order to achieve new results – a system that embraces the lessons of the past and rejects Preble Street’s plans for new shelters in Bayside.


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