Board of Commissioners moves to help homeless families in crisis

December 23, 2011

With record numbers of children and families being turned away from overwhelmed shelters, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously agreed on Thursday, Dec. 22 to expand safe places to sleep.

The board approved $788,000 in emergency spending to add beds at shelters and move more families into permanent housing. But most of the money will provide rent assistance to keep families from being evicted in the first place.

The board also approved a one-year pilot program for religious institutions and nonprofits to voluntarily allow up to four families staying in their vehicles in the parking lots overnight.

Faith communities had requested the program for the growing number of people camping illegally in their vehicles. The move is supported by a broad coalition including Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and the Portland City Council, which approved the pilot for Portland on Dec. 21.

“We’ve seen unprecedented numbers of families and children living in vehicles who live in constant fear of being told to move on, being ticketed or towed,’’ said Marc Jolin, executive director of JOIN, a Portland nonprofit that serves the homeless community. The coalition hopes the arrangement links homeless closer to services and strengthens the safety net by involving more people.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish told the board the city and county did not create many of the factors driving families from their homes. Instead, local governments are facing the fallout from national issues including nearly 10 percent unemployment, high numbers of homeless veterans, a national health care crisis and waves of foreclosures.

“This is a national problem; this is not a Portland problem,’’ Fish said to applause.

Commissioners Deborah Kafoury and Judy Shiprack brought the emergency spending request forward in part after learning about the sharp increase in calls to the county’s 211info call center from people who need rent or energy assistance.

Shelters are full, and Human Solutions Director Jean DeMaster said increasingly those seeking help are working parents with children who don’t get enough hours of work or earn enough wages to cover their rent.

Jolin, director of JOIN, said the demand for shelter has spiked months earlier than the typical January high. For instance, Janus Youth Programs reported 133 youths turned away by 9 p.m. so far this month because of crowding.

“These are not homeless youth, these are family-less children,’’ said Dennis Morrow, executive director of Janus Youth Programs.

Commissioner Kafoury said, “No young person should be on the street at night.’’

“We’re going to stand as firmly as possible on this,’’ said Commissioner Shiprack. “Families being out in the cold is not acceptable.”

For more information:
Winter shelter information for the 2011-12 season