No city wants families living on its streets, but fixing the homeless problem turns out to be more complicated than simply saying “We won’t turn anyone away” from shelters.
PORTLAND — It was a rainy winter evening when Deborah Kafoury got her wake-up call. She was delivering dinner to a church homeless shelter, and under the awning, out of the rain, children were doing their homework beneath a streetlight, waiting for the shelter to open.
As the chair of the Board of County Commissioners, Kafoury is chief executive officer of Multnomah County, which hangs like a drape along the Columbia River, covering Portland. And what she saw that night in 2015 made her angry.
The moment inspired Kafoury to push for a radical policy: Promising every homeless family shelter.
This no-turn-away policy was an audacious move, something that’s never been tried in Seattle or other West Coast cities struggling with big populations of unsheltered homeless people, especially families.
Most Read Local Stories
- Did your ballot reach its destination? Here's how to track it in Washington state
- Who will get COVID-19 vaccines first: Washington state health officials outline their plan
- The plot thickens in Seattle's protest story
- Coronavirus daily news updates, October 21: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world VIEW
- Fall surge of COVID-19 is hitting Washington, state officials warn
But sheltering every family turned out to be a bigger task than Multnomah County could handle.
More people needed shelter than they expected, in part because data show that Portland’s no-turn-away shelters drew people from other counties, and even other states. Less than half the families who checked into the shelter said their last address was in Portland or Multnomah County.
The policy ended in October with a blown budget, overflowing family shelters and nearly 100 families staying in motels, with the county footing the bill.
The story of this well-intentioned but failed effort offers lessons for the Seattle area. What Kafoury and other county leaders learned is that if a city opens its shelters’ door wide, it has to have an equally wide door into housing or else be more selective about who it can help.
Despite a push by businesses and philanthropy in King County to end family homelessness, more than a thousand families who requested services reported living outdoors, according to county figures as of August. Over 400 families were turned away from Mary’s Place, King County’s largest family shelter provider, in the first half of this year. That’s more than the number of families they accepted.
Guaranteeing shelter is one way to ensure no family sleeps outside. Although Portland’s policy failed, similar policies in cities including New York and Washington, D.C., have worked to varying degrees to keep families off the street.
As Portland and Multnomah County deal with the fallout this year, local leaders are looking to a more regional approach, so the city isn’t going it alone on homelessness.
And local officials — even those who supported the no-turn-away shelter — say the experiment showed that the best alternative is keeping someone from entering shelter in the first place.
• • •
Portland’s rising housing costs
Portland bounced back from the Great Recession faster than almost any other U.S. city, and in the last few years it became one of America’s most popular places to move to. Young professionals came for the inexpensive rent, outdoor lifestyle, the indie music and the art scene.
But as in Seattle, not everyone won in the post-recession lottery. Today, tent camps squat on bike paths that weave through increasingly expensive neighborhoods.
With just over 4,000 homeless people on any given night, Multnomah County’s per-capita homeless population is only slightly lower than King County’s.
This is what Kafoury promised to change when she was elected in 2014. Growing up, she never knew who would be at the breakfast table. Her mother, Gretchen Kafoury, a legend in Oregon politics and well-known advocate for the poor, regularly gave homeless women and their children a place to stay.
By the time Deborah Kafoury won office, the homeless problem had escalated.
After a 15 percent spike in rents in 2015, and what was dubbed “The Summer of Evictions” by activists, Multnomah County added 600 shelter beds to catch the people who couldn’t afford rising housing costs.
Kafoury and Portland officials also merged city and county departments into a Joint Office of Homeless Services — something Seattle and King County leaders are exploring.
It was around late 2015 that Kafoury and other leaders enacted the right to shelter, starting with a $2 million budget for the family shelter system.
A “right to shelter” is a controversial concept, even in liberal Seattle, where families make up a much higher percentage of the homeless population.
In last year’s mayoral race, candidate Cary Moon endorsed the idea of “housing as a right” during a debate. But Moon backpedaled, saying that she wouldn’t support something like in New York, where a broad right-to-shelter was enacted in 1979. Today, that city of 8.5 million people has fewer people living on the streets than Seattle, but spends $1.1 billion a year supporting a shelter system so sprawling it has its own police force.
Washington, D.C., has the closest thing to what Portland tried. The district has promised shelter during the winter for decades. But starting around the same time as Multnomah County, the district began sheltering families year-round.
District officials quickly recognized a problem, however. The surrounding suburbs didn’t have a right to shelter, and were only a quick subway ride away. From October 2016 to September 2017, 174 families came in from outside the district asking for assistance, so officials started requiring families to provide documentation showing they were district residents before becoming homeless.
Unlike D.C., Kafoury refused to turn anyone away in Portland.
• • •
“I can’t be a mom to them in a hotel”
Tykeisha Irving felt like she was treading water. The 28-year-old nursing assistant moved with her two sons from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Portland in July 2017 to take care of her grandparents, get a better-paying job and be near her boys’ father.
The plan didn’t work out. She fought with her family. Her license didn’t transfer to Oregon, so she took a minimum-wage job at an assisted-living facility. Rents were higher than she had anticipated, and she didn’t have much saved up.
One night, after a fight with her family, Irving loaded her 10- and 4-year-old boys into her Acura and checked into a motel, but she couldn’t afford to stay there long. “I can’t be a mom to them while being in a hotel,” Irving said.
She didn’t know about the no-turn-away policy when, a few months after arriving in Oregon, she looked online and found a family shelter run by the nonprofit Human Solutions in Southeast Portland, housed in a building that used to be a strip club.
The family was assigned two bunks: 10-year-old Tyler on top, Irving and 4-year-old Marcus on the bottom. At first, Tyler wouldn’t go into the shelter, crying and saying he wanted to go home.
The no-turn-away policy was in its second year, and it appeared to be working. The number of unsheltered families counted in Multnomah was halved from 2015 to 2017, even as the numbers of people sleeping outside skyrocketed in other West Coast cities.
But last summer, Human Solutions’ shelter was straining under the increased demand. Executive Director Andy Miller said they couldn’t train staff quickly enough to keep up with the growing demand. Meals, housing placement, rental assistance — everything was insufficient, Miller said.
Kafoury started hearing that hospital staff on the Oregon coast and social workers around the state were telling families they could go to Portland. At least eight families came from Seattle looking for shelter, according to officials.
About a third of families who reported their last address listed someplace outside of Oregon or Southwest Washington, though shelter officials say the previous-address question wasn’t always asked consistently.
This is one of very few documented instances of a “magnet effect”; existing data shows that most homeless people in any community had housing there before they came, according to Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And that Multnomah County data has limits: Staff didn’t ask why a family was in Multnomah County if that address was outside the county, or if they’d stayed with a friend or family member in the county since living in a different zip code, according to the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
When Human Solutions ran out of shelter, they started putting families up in motels, including the Irving family.
As the demand grew, the system went into the red. By November, there were 90 families in motels, and the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ original $2 million budget for family shelters was $1.5 million over budget.
Shelter staff were desperate to get families into housing before money ran out. When Irving struggled to get an apartment because of an unpaid bill to a former landlord, Human Solutions came up with $2,000 to help her resolve the debt. She got into an apartment in October, where she’s staying now.
As winter came on, Human Solutions and the county asked local landlords to take in families in its “Home for the Holidays” campaign. They housed 42 families in two months, but it didn’t solve the problem.
Seeing no other options, Kafoury and the county put the word out: The no-turn-away policy would be ending in November.
As Christmas got close, Kafoury asked Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown — whose chief of staff is Kafoury’s husband — to help. Brown helped push through the Legislature a $2.4 million bailout to keep sheltering families.
• • •
Is “right to shelter” the right idea?
Shelter doesn’t solve homelessness; it’s simply a step in a bigger journey. That’s what officials like Marc Jolin, head of the city-county homelessness-services office, says the no-turn-away policy emphasized for local leaders.
Data show that people don’t want to stay in shelter, and families usually fix their homelessness on their own by staying with relatives or friends, doubling up or moving somewhere cheaper, according to research by Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and director of research at the National Center for Homelessness among Veterans.
Jolin’s approach is to spend resources on families that can’t do those things.
“We can actually make the problem in our shelter system worse, rather than better, by over-investing in shelter,” Jolin said. “If I can keep someone in their housing, that is one less family that is in need of shelter.
That approach paid off in Washington, D.C., which decreased its population of homeless families by more than 20 percent last year by focusing on using shelter as a last resort, according to Kristy Greenwalt, D.C.’s director to end homelessness.
When a family comes in asking for shelter, staff checks shared records to make sure they’re not from one of D.C.’s suburbs; if they are, they’re referred back home. If they are from D.C., the city can set up mediation to smooth over disputes so families can stay with relatives rather than go to shelter.
Since 2015, the district has used these approaches to divert 6,000 families from staying in shelter, according to Greenwalt. That’s more than half the number of families who have asked for shelter at the city’s family-resource center.
In Portland, Kafoury doesn’t regret the no-turn-away shelter strategy, even though the city’s shelters have been virtually full since last year, with months-long waiting lists. She paid no political price for it, either, breezing through the county’s primary in May with 72 percent of the vote.
But her take-away from the policy’s result is that Multnomah County can’t do it alone. She supports a regional approach, including a $650 million affordable-housing bond in all three of Portland metro’s counties on the ballot this November to create up to 3,900 housing units.
Kafoury also hopes for a statewide plan to fund homeless services in each county, although she — like leaders in the Seattle area — says the problem can’t be fixed without more help from the federal government, including building affordable housing.
If Kafoury could, she’d like to reinstitute the shelter guarantee in the future, especially if it is statewide.
“I believe so strongly that no child should be homeless,” Kafoury said. “That was our mantra, it’s in our core. … In reality, I hope we can go back to it.”
A previous version of this story misstated what King County family shelters had to turn away families. In the first half of this year, over 400 families were turned away from King County shelters.