“We want to grow our communities and support the folks that live within them—that includes houseless folks,” says Native American Youth and Family Center Manager Allyssa Casad. From Jackson County to Portland, unsheltered and chronic homeless populations continue to climb along with housing costs. Oregon ranks number one in the nation for the highest rate of unsheltered homeless families.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred the creation of city-sanctioned houseless camps and new policies to pause camp sweeps, establish accessible restrooms, and fund the renovation of motels into emergency housing. With the end of the pandemic possibly in sight and many wondering what will come after, I asked four leaders who work on housing and homelessness to share their insights about how the state can better serve its unhoused residents.
Kaia Sand is the executive director of the Portland newspaper Street Roots and co-founder of the Right 2 Survive Ambassador Program. She formerly worked as a poet, magician, community organizer, and university professor.
I've been thinking a lot about what it looks like to imagine our city in a way that is hospitable to and designed for the poorest people. I think too often it's in our policies—we're sort of fighting the wrong things. You know, like park policies that exclude people who are unhoused instead of actually designing parks that are completely hospitable to the poorest people. How do we design a society in which baths, toilets, and sinks are accessible so that both unhoused and housed people can benefit?
We want more unhoused people to inform policy. Pre-pandemic, if you wanted to testify at City Hall, you had to go through a metal detector. If you're carrying everything you own, there's something that's metal in there. So in other words, people really don't have access to these civic spaces, which are often designed in ways that make unhoused people feel like the unwelcome guest.
During the pandemic, people have been coming to testify before City Hall from our office at Street Roots, which is a more comfortable space. Some people have testified from their tents using their phones. There are so many things with the pandemic that as we look ahead, it's like, what transformations do we want to just lean into and push more? It's really hard work, but we all have to be committed and help each other to build this more just future.
Chad McComas is the executive director of Rogue Retreat, a homeless nonprofit in Medford that includes Southern Oregon’s first gated tiny house community. He’s also served as the board chair of the Addictions Recovery Center and as a pastor.
I'm seeing communities in Southern Oregon becoming more aware they need to address the homeless problem. In Jackson County, before the fires, we were four thousand units short of what we needed. We just lost 2,500 homes in the fires, and there’s only about one hundred affordable places built every year. Because of this and COVID, our state put money out there to buy motels to turn them into long-term housing. I think COVID has forced us to find new solutions. We're going to learn from this and in the next ten years, I think we're going to see a lot of these old hotels turned into apartments.
We're also going to see a tsunami of homelessness soon when more of our seniors retire and try to live on social security. We have people who worked forty years, faithful workers who did a great job. They get social security, but they get maybe $800 a month. When you compare that with what it costs to rent an apartment in Oregon—the average one-bedroom apartment is $950—where are they going to live? We're going to have to create affordable housing through tiny houses, shipping container apartments, pallet structures, and every method we can.
If I could change one thing, it would be HUD housing. Section 8 vouchers are wonderful, but the big flaw is if you make one more dollar above a certain line of income, you lose all your housing, medical, and food subsidies. I think HUD needs a graduated scale where if you make another dollar, you might lose a bit of subsidies, but you're encouraged to work forty hours a week instead of twenty. This way, as you’re learning how to be more productive, you're not penalized. We teach our people here that life begins above the HUD line. It’s scary, but that's when you can actually be free.
Cristina Palacios is the Housing Justice Program director at Unite Oregon, where she particularly enjoys serving people of color, immigrants, and the Latino community. She is driven by the belief that everyone—regardless of income, disability, race or immigration status—deserves a safe place to call home.
Many immigrants or refugees, they tend to double up in someone's home, and sometimes they don't consider themselves homeless. We need to invite housing providers and leaders from the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community to explore what homelessness looks like for them. We also need to do outreach in the years to come to make sure that BIPOC understand what affordable housing is, where to find it, and how to keep it.
Another issue is that we don't have culturally specific homeless shelters. I was working with an immigrant recently who was experiencing domestic violence and ended up living in their car. They had a job but couldn’t afford housing because wages are so low. After several weeks, they found shelter, but they didn't feel welcome because there was no one that looked like them or spoke their language. This person was also in crisis mode, and it took us three days to find someone to do a free mental health consultation.
Right now, shelters might not have integrated mental health systems, which are expensive and a lot of times not accessible, especially to BIPOC communities—practitioners are not culturally competent and not enough of them look like us. Many people also lack health care coverage. If they qualify, they qualify for the very minimum. We know that homelessness and mental health usually go hand in hand. That's a big issue that we should work on in the years to come if we want to be serious about ending homelessness.
Allyssa Casad is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and is currently the direct service manager at the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA). Allyssa received her master of social work at Portland State University and is a clinical social work associate and oversees NAYA’s Homeless Youth Continuum program and Gang Outreach and Prevention programs.
Housing for Indigenous people can look different because our community is intergenerational. Families want to live together—grandma, mom, children—but it's almost impossible to get a whole family on a lease. We have a lot of community members who have evictions on their record because they didn’t have folks on their lease. So, in addition to funding for rental assistance, NAYA has multiple properties for Indigenous folks that we're focusing on to make sure that our families can be housed in a community setting.
We also need more funding for resources like legal aid, which is something that the youth continuum hasn't had a lot of access to. We have kids who received a felony or have previous housing debt from when they were eighteen, and they still have to continue living in their cars. We know the brain's not fully developed until you're twenty-six, and there's a lot of change that happens. A lot of these youth are so ready to go to school, have a job, get housed, and start fresh.
We need to have conversations about supporting these folks in reintegrating within our neighborhoods, churches, families, and schools. Is it by donating to local nonprofits? Is it by volunteering at churches? I don't think there's a lot of conversations like, What can we do as a neighborhood to support this? I think it's a lot of, Well, whose job is it to fix these issues? To me, it's all of our jobs.
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