No Quick Solutions for Portland’s Housing Crisis

Reed alumni discuss strategies for helping the city’s houseless population get back on their feet.

By Brandon Novy ’19 | June 4, 2018

Portland’s housing crisis is getting worse. Local officials say there are at least 4,177 people in Portland without a permanent residence, up 10 percent in a mere two years. Rent is rising at rates up to 20 times faster than the city’s median income. This crisis disproportionately affects people of color, who comprise over 40 percent of the unhoused population, while only representing 29 percent of Portland’s overall population. And half of all unhoused women have been victims of domestic violence.

Reed’s Alumni Network gathered in Prexy on May 17 to learn more about the crisis from a panel of alumni experts:

  • Vahid Brown ’07 discussed his initiation into the world of activism and how he found an informal path to a political education through volunteering with Right To Dream Too during his time in graduate school. He also spoke to his work in helping organize Hazelnut Grove, a self-maintained village for unsheltered people which subsequently paved the way for his current position as housing policy coordinator for Clackamas County.
  • Elspeth Tanguay-Koo ’00 spoke to her own background of being houseless growing up and her introduction to advocacy through organizations centered around supporting community-based settlements and ensuring that policies are made by “the people with living this reality.”  
  • Amanda Waldroupe ’07 is president of the Oregon Society of Professional Journalists and has been covering topics related to poverty and housing for the past 10 years.
  • Robert Shryock '13 discussed his experience starting out as a Street Roots volunteer, which lead to his subsequent jobs at the Clackamas Service Center and the Oregon Area Food Bank.

From the outset, panelists noted the connotative difference between “houseless” and “homeless”—the first being a statement of fact, the second implying a value judgement and suggesting that those without a roof may not establish a community or safe place.

The panelists shared some harrowing facts about the housing crisis. While some Portlanders fret that the city’s liberal reputation makes it a magnet for vagabonds, most unhoused people are longstanding local residents. In fact, Portland has become another entry on a growing list of cities that criminalize sleeping outside. Punitive initiatives like police sweeps cost the city millions of dollars a year. Furthermore, the cost of emergency-room visits for an unhoused individual can top $40,000 dollars a year—more than it would cost to give them shelter. Petty bureaucracy—such as requiring food-handlers’ permits to hand out bagged lunches—often makes the situation worse.

The discussion then focused on the city’s development policies that reduce the stock of affordable housing. Several alumni spoke up and offered potential solutions, some reluctantly admitting to their professional positions as landlords and developers to provide their own perspective in finding a sustainable solution. One participant suggested that the Alumni Network continue these discussions further so that the group could take inventory of professional connections to leverage on behalf of those voices that are currently unseen and unheard. Another suggested fundraising for hygiene trailers that the city purchased, but is now selling to recuperate money lost after the project was cancelled.

One notable point made was the notion of substandard housing. Are Portland’s building codes too strict, and would loosening them yield cheaper housing? The panelists adamantly rebuked this suggestion in favor of more ethical alternatives that center integrity and community integration, rather than simply throwing a dangerous roof over the heads of those without shelter.

After a fascinating discussion, the panel concluded that these matters do not lie in a vacuum and must be dealt with through direct action. Systemic changes and sustainable initiatives will only succeed if they recognize the voices of those affected.

Mike Teskey, director of alumni initiatives and organizer of the event, spoke to his hope that Reed alumni play a bigger role in Portland’s civic affairs. “The time is right for colleges like Reed to look at a different way of reframing the relationship with their community,” he said.

To connect with the reed alumni network, go here.

To get more involved in finding solutions, check out HomePdx, Sisters of The Road, Oregon Food Bank, Engaging with Local Neighborhood Associations, and Contacting Local Representatives.

Tags: Alumni, Service