Above: Nitan Shanas, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.
I remember how it felt when I heard that I would be working with the Welcome Home Coalition in Portland, Oregon. I alternated between being nervous about being so far away from my friends and family, and being excited about the journey ahead. It was also somewhat of a full-circle moment for me. In 2007, my family went on an extended summer-long relocation to Portland from Israel, which ultimately led us to our collective decision to move to the United States. Portland was a beautiful city then, and it still is now. But Portland is experienced differently by different individuals. So here I was, returning to the city where it all began, a city that could have been my home, to advocate amongst others who are fighting to keep their homes and secure stable housing.
Both housing and homelessness are two issues closely tied to food insecurity. Many families and individuals are forced to make the difficult decision of either getting food on their dinner plate or having a safe and affordable place to rest their head at night. As an Emerson National Hunger Fellow, my placement with the Welcome Home Coalition addresses food insecurity and poverty from the perspective of housing issues.
Portland has certainly seen a rise in the number of people sleeping on the streets since I first visited the city as a child. While the total homeless population in Portland, Gresham, and Multnomah County combined decreased between 2007 and 2019, unsheltered homelessness within this community has risen by nearly 25%, or about 400 people from an initial population of 1,634 to 2,037 individuals, during that timeframe1. (It is important to recognize that these statistics come from the biannual Point-In-Time count which itself is a flawed measure that likely underestimates the true number of people experiencing homelessness2.) Rising rents have caused many of the city’s residents to be priced out of their homes, leading to the many tents and tent encampments that are now found throughout the city.
The increase in unsheltered homelessness and tent encampments is one change I have noticed since my experience in the city as a child. Another difference in what I have noticed? One word: racism. Though I have much to learn about racism in Portland, I am more attuned to it now as a young adult than I was back in 2007. During my second week of the fellowship, Welcome Home Coalition sent me a list of articles to read including “Oregon Was Founded as A Racist Utopia” which, among other topics, discusses how the Oregon Constitution did not allow Black people to live, work, or own property in the state. Though this measure was eventually removed from the Oregon Constitution, its detrimental effects still show up in all sorts of ways throughout the state to this day. I later attended a presentation hosted by the Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCCP) which discussed the racist and discriminatory nature of Oregon’s tax policy. For instance, I learned that Oregon passed two property tax limit measures in the 1990s that prohibit municipalities from raising taxes on people’s properties beyond a certain point. This severely limits the amount of funding that local governments receive to be able to fund services, including affordable housing opportunities. While this affects all Oregonians, it has a particularly negative affect on people of color who we know are less represented in homeownership and are more likely to need affordable housing opportunities and other services. OCCP explained that measures like property tax limit originated in the South during the dawn of the Jim Crow era. It goes without saying that racism manifests in ugly ways through many aspects of life, including homelessness. For instance, almost 4 out of every 10 homeless individuals in the U.S. identify as Black or African American, despite Black and African American individuals making up only 13.4% of the entire U.S. population34
The West Coast has higher rates of homelessness than anywhere else in the country, and Portland is no exception. Despite the city’s high rates of homelessness and its legacy of implementing racist housing policies, I do have reason to be hopeful. There is no single solution for our nation’s homelessness and housing affordability crisis. Instead, we need a plethora of creative ideas, many of which are being implemented in the Portland region. In 2016 and 2018, Portland voters approved two affordable housing bonds ($258.4 million for the city and $653 million for the metro region, respectively) to increase the stock of affordable housing units in the area56 . In 2020 voters passed a third measure, expected to gross about $2.5 billion over the next decade, that will go directly towards supportive housing services (i.e. case management and other social services to ensure that housing insecure individuals can keep their homes). This will be the largest per capita investment for supportive housing services by any local government in the country7.
The Welcome Home Coalition, which led the 2016 housing bond campaign and was also involved with the other two campaigns, works to empower people with lived experiences of housing insecurity as well as other activists to advocate for regional policies that advance the affordable housing stock. As part of my placement I have been researching the impact of the bonds and will be creating infographics to make my findings more accessible and easier for the general public to understand. I will also build on earlier research conducted by the coalition in 2014, updating it to reflect tax policies that have been implemented in the city since 2014 and incorporating the stories and experiences of the people served by the coalition. I continue to be proud and humbled to be involved in an organization that is doing such important work.
Above all, I am excited about all that I have learned and all that I will learn about housing solutions and how to be a better anti-poverty/hunger advocate. Both the Welcome Home Coalition and the Congressional Hunger Center have been intentional in ensuring that fellows have opportunities to learn and grow and I have seized these opportunities to the best of my ability. Portland has been addressing its housing crisis in unique ways, as have several other cities. I am privileged to have heard about other efforts through several conferences that I attended. I hope to bring my learnings to the policy placement and to my eventual career in addressing the national housing affordability crisis.
- Department of Housing and Urban Development, US Government, Point-In-Time Count and Housing Inventory Count Data Since 2007, www.hudexchange.info/resource/3031/pit-and-hic-data-since-2007/
- “HUD Releases 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part 1,” www.hud.gov/press/press_releases_media_advisories/hud_no_21_041
- U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219
- “Portland’s $258.4 million housing bond wins (election results),” www.oregonlive.com/politics/2016/11/portlands_2584_million_housing.html
- “$653 million Metro affordable housing bond passes: Election results 2018,” www.oregonlive.com/politics/2018/11/2018_metro_affordable_housing_bond.html
- “Funds From Metro’s New Supportive Housing Service Tax Reach Portland’s Homeless,” www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2021/10/14/36570982/funds-from-metros-new-supportive-housing-service-tax-reach-portlands-homeless