‘Public Health Portland Style’ Ponders How to Keep Portland Housed and Healthy

Hospitals should use their profits to supply housing, a 15-year veteran of the street newspaper movement told more than 100 people who attended an OHSU School of Public Health event, and some 3,000 others who watched online.

Last February, Cameron Foster and her four daughters found themselves homeless. A shelter for those fleeing domestic violence served as housing for the first three months. “Then we were on the streets for real,” she said, sleeping in a 1996 Honda, showering at a community center, trying to feed a family on food stamps without a kitchen.

Half a million people are homeless on any given night nationwide -- about 13,000 of them in Oregon and nearly 4,000 in Multnomah County, says Ryan Deibert, senior program specialist with the Joint Office of Homeless Services for Multnomah County and the City of Portland. He suspects those numbers are undercounts because they don’t include couch surfers and others doubled up.

“In 1933, four years after the 1929 crash, there were a million homeless people in America,” said Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, the homeless newspaper. President Roosevelt committed resources to make street homelessness “nonexistent” by 1945.

But in the 1980s, President Reagan cut investment in housing from $81 billion to $20 billion in four years. “What was once a federal priority became a local problem,” Bayer said, adding that a whole generation has never know an urban landscape without homeless people on the streets. For them, homelessness is normal, and Bayer wonders how they will find the political will to end homelessness.

Still, Bayer is hopeful, saying that on the same night President Trump was elected, a handful of cities passed affordable housing measures.

Bayer credits former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales for legalizing camping because it made homelessness more visable to the public than the disruptive and minimizing strategy of moving campers out of sight.

And Bayer sees a role for major medical systems. “Hospitals are making record profits (under the Affordable Care Act). Hospitals should be in housing. We need real investments in real infrastructure,” Bayer said.

Bayer’s advice for anyone: Look homeless people in the eye. Give money without judgment. Ponder the mental health impact of sleeping among rodents and living amid violence. “If you spend any number of months or years on the street,” he said, “the homeless population is dealing with PTSD at some level.”

Meanwhile, Foster and her daughters -- now 15, 11 and seven-year-old twins – moved into their current housing just four days after she started a job in August -- as a housing coordinator at Self Enhancement Inc. (SEI).

“I think God put me through what I went through so I can do what I do,” Foster said.

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