Chair Kafoury at the Oregon Health Forum: ‘A home is not only the most effective solution to homelessness — it’s actually the only solution’

May 31, 2019

Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks at the Oregon Health Forum on Friday, May 31, 2019.
Chair Deborah Kafoury reminded a room of health and housing policy experts Friday that the solution to homelessness is simpler than people sometimes think.

It's housing.

“If, when you think of homelessness, you automatically go to mental health, PTSD or addiction, then yes, those are complex health issues that require careful treatment,” she told dozens of people gathered at the Multnomah Athletic Club for an Oregon Health Forum discussion on homelessness. “But every single one of those solutions should always include four walls, a roof and a front door.

“Because the simple truth is that homelessness is solved with a home, and when you have that space to you call your own, recovery and healing are far more likely.”

Chair Kafoury was one of the lead speakers at the Health Forum session, titled “Homelessness – Where Do We Go From Here?” She was joined by Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor from San Francisco who’s studied homelessness.

Both participated in a panel discussion that included Rachel Solotaroff, chief executive of Central City Concern; Tyrone Poole, the creator of an app that streamlines rental applications; and Ashley Henry, executive director of Business for a Better Portland.

Chair Kafoury also urged those in attendance to join her in a public-private community coalition, called Here Together Oregon, that’s exploring ways to build on recent housing bonds that are poised to grow the region’s supply of affordable apartments.

“The next challenge before us will be to secure funding to pay down rents for the lowest-income households, and for essential services to keep people housed,” she said. “It’s a source of revenue we don’t currently have because the bond money can only pay for buildings.”

Additional highlights from the Chair’s speech are included below:

On the housing market’s role in driving homelessness in Portland and the West Coast:

Housing has become too expensive for our lowest-income community members.

In cities across the nation, but especially the west coast, our housing stock has not been able to keep up with the number of people moving here.

And as all Econ 101 students know: limited supply, equals increased demand, and therefore increased cost.

But the catch is that while rents have skyrocketed, incomes on the lower end have continued to stagnate, forcing more and more people to confront the possibility of their own homelessness.

And I know it’s hard to reconcile when we’re told that unemployment is at record lows, but when I hear from people struggling to get by with two, even three jobs, then I’m not so sure that this economy is working for everyone.

In a study conducted last fall by ECONorthwest for the Oregon Community Foundation, researchers found that 56,000 households region-wide are at risk of homelessness.

And that’s where we’re at today: out of the Great Recession came the housing crisis, but it’s the economic recovery that has made it permanent.

So for too many people in our community, housing instability has become the norm, and not the exception.

The panel at the Oregon Health Forum on Friday, May 31.

On how the visibility of homelessness has changed local government’s ability to respond:

Homelessness is a housing issue, but the simplicity of that concept hasn’t always cut through the noise, and we still have to fight  to secure the support we need.

I have worked on this issue for most of my life, and up until it became increasingly visible to the general public, homelessness lingered lower on people’s priorities. And it was a challenge to secure resources and support.

But due to renewed public focus, and especially the perseverance and day-in-day-out efforts of advocates, we have been able to build a strong coalition that has invested in a systems-based approach….

Over the last five years, we have:

  • Increased homelessness prevention by almost 50 percent to more than 6,000 new households a year.

  • Nearly doubled the number of people moved out of homelessness and back into permanent housing each year, to almost 6,000.

  • Doubled our shelter beds, and the number of people receiving shelter each year to more than 8,000.

  • And, last year, we served a total number of 35,000 people though the Joint Office.

We have also set aggressive goals for ourselves.

Just under two years ago, with the City of Portland, we committed to creating 2,000 supportive housing units in 10 years. So far, we have 600 units either already built or in the pipeline.

The panel at the Oregon Health Forum on Friday, May 31.

On the need for long-term policy changes alongside emergency solutions:

For the past five years, we have been responding to an emergency, but unlike most emergencies, we have realized that this one has no clear end in sight.

So what does that mean for us?

It means that we need to build our systems for the long term.

It means connecting our services and data with the criminal justice system, mental health, and our hospitals.

It means aligning our services with other jurisdictions so that we can spend our dollars as effectively as possible, eliminate the gaps, and ensure that homelessness for anyone in our community is rare, brief and one-time.

On the limits of homelessness services in the absence of housing people can afford:

For our systems to work, we need to make sure that there are homes on the other end for people to go to.

In the last three years, we have passed two local bond measures (one City-wide, one region-wide), to create new affordable housing, and together, they will provide thousands of new homes for our communities.

The next challenge before us will be to secure funding to pay down rents for the lowest-income households, and for essential services to keep people housed.

It’s a source of revenue we don’t currently have because the bond money can only pay for buildings.

This is why I am a part of a coalition of community leaders from both the private and public sectors that is exploring potential options that will help us expand our affordable and supportive housing stock.

The coalition is called Here Together, and I urge you to get involved.

The solution to a person’s homelessness is a pretty easy concept to understand if you can strip away the disinformation and prejudice.

Because ultimately, a home is not only the most effective solution to homelessness; it’s actually the only solution.