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Help people with addiction and homelessness

Fixing a broken shelter entry system, building recovery capacity 

Enough with the County’s plans to plan: here’s how to get it done. 

We’re in a shelter and addiction emergency. Let’s treat it like one. A first step is to establish real-time shelter bed capacity tracking. I will take action by building bridges with the county and begin tracking shelter availability in 90 days with an actionable plan to expand system wide within 180 days or I’ll demand the city end our failing partnership with the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Below is background on why we have unfilled shelter beds, the missing piece of recovery housing, how I’ll provide accountability and a 90 day plan to track shelter beds. 

Background: Long wait lists AND unfilled beds

According to the 2023 Oregon State-Wide Homeless estimates by PSU 25% of Portland shelter beds go unused at night. This is down from an estimated 80% utilization in Portland in 2022. Compare that to Salt Lake City where just 1% of beds are unfilled. So how do we explain empty beds in light of the statistics that Portland needs hundreds of additional shelter beds? Both are true and it has to do with a broken system that doesn’t track availability. 

Currently the shelter system has two entry points: families must call 211 for referrals, then follow up with individual shelters with calls and internet searches to secure a reservation. Then, when they have a reservation, they get a bus ticket to a shelter. There are long waitlists for families. 

For single adults, each shelter has its own entry point, many of which are run by Transition Projects. If a person arrives at a shelter without a reservation or referral, that provider might call to find an opening elsewhere. The adult shelter system offers providers autonomy at the expense of sheltering people. 

Why the open beds?

Portland’s piecemeal shelter system creates unnecessary barriers that are hardly realistic for people in crisis to navigate. Compounding this, the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) despite a budget of $255 million doesn’t track beds availability. This is unacceptable and leads to unused capacity in one area with long wait lists in another. 

JOHS also doesn't require providers to fill emergency beds even if they are available. Some providers lack requirements that people assigned beds actually sleep in them, so individuals can access meals, showers, laundry, while still living in a tent. It may be appropriate to continue reservations for some types of shelter beds, but not system-wide if night after night we have beds that go unfilled. 

The first step to revisiting a reservation system is understanding where there are beds available. The next step is creating more emergency capacity that incorporates a recovery continuum.

Biggest missing piece: Recovery housing

Portland desperately needs recovery shelters to create pathways to recovery housing. No one should ever exit jail or treatment to live on the street as they do now. It’s been a mistake to focus solely on getting people into shelter “housing first” without consideration of their need for treatment.

According to the county last year only 17% of people leaving detox were placed into suitable housing that met their treatment needs. The rest, 1000 people last year, were released simply back to the street. No barrier shelters are not suitable for people trying to recover and create a cycle of relapse that takes a terrible toll on people and systems. 

Multnomah county is allegedly at work reopening a 35-50 bed sobering center, after closing the last one in 2020. Central City Concern, in partnership with the City and State, is working to open 70 new mental health and treatment beds by fall at a cost of $17.5 million. We need leaders who will be watching closely to ensure these plans are enacted and take the next steps to build capacity for people exiting into longer term recovery.  

The biggest missing piece is recovery focused shelters and transitional housing that create sober spaces to help people out of addiction post-detox and homelessness. It’s also important that on the continuum of recovery from shelter to treatment to outpatient care to sobriety that people have quick access to higher level care as needed. Hope Recovery Center is one example of outpatient treatment that coupled with group housing and transportation to the day clinic, has been a successful pathway for many. 

At the state and county level tens of millions of dollars have been allocated for treatment and recovery programs and housing. It will be up to local leaders to watch how this money is being spent in our communities and 

Accountability is all about the how.

Portland doesn't lack for great ideas, but desperately needs leaders who know how to get things done. From building coalitions to getting critical legislation passed to organizing emergency response efforts during COVID, I know how to build and operationalize plans that serve whole communities. At OHSU I played a pivotal role in helping stand up clinics to vaccinate over 120,000 people in three months and address Oregon’s biggest crisis. This is what separates me from other candidates who have ideas but lack the practical experience to work with complex systems to get things done effectively.

To operationalize shelter availability tracking in 90 days requires a real plan. I’d like to see this in coordination with an initiative to rapidly increase the number of shelter beds such as the plan proposed by Shelter Portland founder Keith Wilson

We can’t enforce a camping ban and help people into shelter or recovery pathways until we know where there are available beds–and where we need to create more. Here’s an overview of how I’ll lead in implementing availability tracking in 90 days.

90-Day Implementation of Shelter Capacity Tracking

City/ County Collaboration 

  • Day 1 Convene city and county leaders to secure approval for emergency action and funding for a shelter availability system. 

  • Identify an elected commissioner/ councilor from the county/ city to serve as a liaison with the JOHS, bureaus and county agencies who will be accountable for results. 

  • Establish metrics and benchmarks for implementation: for example 30 day pilot with 10 emergency shelter providers scaling up to tracking with all JOHS providers within 180 days. 

  • Identify and assign project management to implement software and training

Secure Funding and Legal Clearances

  • Pass a city council resolution to secure emergency funding in coordination with Multnomah County

  • Create emergency waivers for expedited procurement of software to speed up implementation

  • Provide notice to JOHS funded shelter providers that the next six month contract renewal will include a requirement to participate in availability tracking. 

  • Establish an expectation for participation in an emergency point in time count at day 60 and 90 to assess overall capacity while a tracking system is phased in. 

  • Create and share incentives for providers to participate in a pilot

Technical development

  • Develop basic system specification requirements, including real-time updates, user accessibility, and data reporting features.

  • Working with 211 and providers evaluate existing reservation systems and identify basic requirements (example beds reserved for families, no barrier beds, RV spaces, emergency night time shelters etc.)

  • Select a software capable of offering basic real-time tracking of shelter bed availability–hotels and hospitals and other cities have such systems.

Organizing and testing with providers days 30-60

  • Establish monthly point in time capacity counts and reporting for all JOHS funded providers who do not currently participate. 

  • Identify providers for a 30 day pilot to test and refine processes immediately.

  • Set up the software system in participating shelters and train staff on its usage.

  • Begin the pilot program with providers by day 60, monitoring software performance, and collecting feedback from users.

  • Identify providers to participate in phases in universal adoption in days 90 -180 when provider contracts are renewed with consideration for different types and sizes and requirements of shelters.

Evaluation and planning for universal implementation

  • Convene weekly with liaisons and project management staff to identify and address technical, training and other barriers 

  • Coordinate availability reporting with 211 referral systems to reduce waits and eliminate empty beds. 

  • Determine the long term cost, potential savings and funding beyond day 180.

Day 90 and beyond

  • Phase in software with all providers 

  • Continue evaluating systemic capacity issues (beds not available due to staffing, location or transportation related challenges etc.)

  • Use data collected to inform the creation of additional 

  • Work on improving access for those seeking shelter to limit actions needed by shelter seekers. 

We’re in a shelter and addiction emergency. I’m going to treat shelter like the emergency it is beginning with with tracking availability so we can help people camping into shelters. Now May 2024 is the time to demand action as Portland is negotiating our next Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) and end the mismanagement of the adult shelter system, so we can give people a real choice to come off the streets or move into a sanctioned camping area because space is available.

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