‘Housing, not Warehousing’: County leaders, businesses, advocates reject Trump’s harsh homelessness rhetoric

September 26, 2019

Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks at a Street Roots news conference Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
Chair Deborah Kafoury linked arms with community leaders and people who’ve personally experienced homelessness to rebuke Donald Trump’s threats to round up people living on our streets — and warehouse them in remote facilities, out of sight and out of mind.

The community rally on Wednesday, Sept. 25, was called “Housing, not Warehousing,” and it follows sharp new rhetoric from the White House on West Coast homelessness.  

Beyond calling for mass shelters far from city centers, the president and his team have urged communities to rely on police more, instead of less, in responding to people in a mental health crisis. They’ve threatened environmental fines for cities like San Francisco over discarded syringes. And they’ve called for further cutting federal housing investments instead of reversing decades of growing disinvestment.

Kaia Sand speaks at a Street Roots news conference Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
“There are four dangerous themes that have emerged over the months — to police the poor, to devalue the poor, to warehouse the poor and to blame the poor,” said Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, which hosted the rally.

“This administration has locked up families from other countries seeking safety from violence,” Chair Kafoury said, “and now they are proposing to round up and warehouse Americans because they have lost their homes.”

Beyond Chair Kafoury and Sand, speakers included Dan Newth and George McCarthy, both of whom are Street Roots vendors, Karen Kern from Central City Concern, Ashley Henry from Business for a Better Portland, Danielle Klock from Sisters of the Road, Tyler Mac Innis from the Welcome Home Coalition, and Will Harris from JOIN. Central City Concern and JOIN both receive funding for their work through the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Local echoes of Trump’s troubling rhetoric

Several speakers made clear that Trump’s ideas have found echoes in Portland.

For example, prominent voices in the business and public safety communities have renewed a push for the City of Portland and Multnomah County to fund a mass shelter and police drop-off center 11 miles from downtown in the privately owned former Wapato jail.

Service providers, public officials and people with lived experience in addiction and homelessness have repeatedly spoken against the concept. They say the facility would isolate people by keeping them from other services and community connections.

Commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Jessica Vega Pederson stand with service providers at a Street Roots news conference Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
They also say the expense in renovating and then operating such a large facility would siphon funding from the rest of the homelessness response system without meaningfully adding any new capacity.

Shifting funds to Wapato would mean closing services-connected shelter beds already in the community. It also would mean stripping away rent assistance that’s keeping people in housing and out of homelessness altogether.

On any given night, Chair Kafoury said, local funding keeps more than 12,400 people in housing they otherwise would not have. Local funding also provides more than 1,400 shelter beds on any given night. Multnomah County has already had to cut into other programs to continue growing that capacity.

“There is not a warehouse or a jail nearby that could house that many people, let alone house them successfully,” Kafoury said. “And I’m not willing to kick thousands of people out of their homes so we can round up and whisk away a few hundred people from downtown, for the sake of satisfying the whims of the rich and powerful.”

In addition, the County has already purchased a building downtown at 333 S.W. Park where it will open a first-of-its-kind behavioral health resource center, including showers and laundry services, peer resources, and shelter and transitional housing beds. The proposed facility at Wapato would duplicate some of that work, but at a higher cost and in a less-effective location.

“The real motive is plain and clear. It’s to move people in need away from downtown, and away from the community they deserve to be a part of,” Kafoury said.

McCarthy, one of the two Street Roots vendors who spoke, was the most blunt when asked about plans to use a jail on the community’s fringes as shelter.

“'Look, this prison's open, what are you complaining about? You really have no other options, why don’t you just sit in there?’” he said he’s heard people say. “No. Why don’t you sit in there?”

Real solutions: rent assistance and support services

Instead of the Trump Administration’s call for of moving people out of sight and away from the community, advocates and providers urged the federal government and local business partners to support the proven strategies already helping thousands of people in Multnomah County. 

“The solution to homelessness is housing,” said Henry, whose organization represents hundreds of CEOs and has lobbied governments at all levels for upstream solutions to homelessness, like rent assistance.

Ashley Henry speaks at a Street Roots news conference Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
“We must provide rent subsidies that will help individuals and families to afford the rent,” she said. “Only one-quarter of the households who qualify for these supports receive them. Can you imagine telling someone who is eligible for food stamps, ‘Sorry, no more food left?’ Yet, that is exactly what we do with housing in this country.”

Henry lamented that the Trump Administration is letting federal dollars subsidize, instead, a downtown Ritz Carlton, backed by wealthy Portlanders, where rooms will go for $400 a night. 

“How can this possibly make sense when we have this crisis on our streets?” she asked.

Kern, Central City Concern’s senior director of substance use disorder services, pointed to the work of her agency — along with several others — in connecting people with addictions or behavioral health issues to affordable housing and person-focused wraparound support services. 

The City of Portland and Multnomah County have committed to creating 2,000 more of those supportive homes by 2028, and are already more than a third of the way toward that goal\. 

Kern said people who receive both housing and treatment, instead of being told they must wait for housing somewhere far from the community, are much more likely to regain their health and remain in housing.

Karen Kern speaks at a Street Roots news conference Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
“It’s a model that works,” she said.

Holding back tears, Kern shared her own experience with addiction and homelessness more than 25 years ago. In the 10 years she spent homeless, she said, she often felt invisible “because I made people uncomfortable, because they saw me as a problem and they didn’t know what to do about me.”

“But the truth is, I was the same beautiful human back then as I am today,” she said, “deserving of the same level of dignity and respect.”

Moving past that part of her life, though it will be “part of me forever,” she said, took someone seeing her, and offering “the right level of service, the right approach for me.” 

A top-down approach that appeases those who’d rather not see people in need isn’t the answer, she said.

“One of the most important ingredients in developing services and finding solutions is including the people being served in finding those solutions — nothing about us without us.”