Do more homeless people really move to Portland?

Many believe Portland’s abundant services draw homeless people from around the country. Research shows that's not quite the case. 

Is Portland a magnet for the homeless? None

Portland’s homeless crisis is impossible to miss. Thousands of people sleep outside, in shelters or in temporary living situations every day.

Advocates say with the city’s homeless crisis comes a slew of opinions, not just about what should be done but about why this happened.

One opinion in particular, they say, seems to be gaining more traction: Portland is a magnet for homeless people from outside of the region.

But is it true? Many Portland residents believe so.

“The services that they're offering here as opposed to other places are a lot better. There's probably a lot better food,” said Portlander Chris Blair. “People realizing this, see that this is an easy place to exist and they just flock here.”

Advocates say the theory that Portland has turned itself into a ‘homeless magnet,’ drawing transients from other cities across the country to take advantage of our non-profit and government services and permissive sidewalk camping laws, is nothing new.

“I first heard about it many years ago,” said Deborah Kafoury, chair of Multnomah County and co-chair of ‘A Home for Everyone.’ 

“In 2009 I actually asked my staff, 'Are people moving here because we provide services?' So, they actually did a quick Google search and found that every community around the country, for the most part, has had a similar conversation: 'Are people moving here?'” Kafoury said.

However, Kafoury and other advocates say Portland’s growing popularity seems to be bolstering support for the idea, as people assume our rise in homelessness, like our rise in overall population, is coming mostly from out-of-state.

“I think there’s also a perception that there are other cities around the country that are actively handing out bus tickets and encouraging folks to head down to Portland,” said George Devendorf, executive director of Transition Projects, a nonprofit that helps Portland’s homeless find transitional and permanent housing.

Portland's Faces of Homelessness

The problem, advocates say, comes when that theory presents an initial roadblock while they’re trying to work with neighborhoods or other areas that may serve as home to potential shelter space.

“We get it at community meetings every time we go out,” said Marc Jolin, Initiative Director for A Home For Everyone.

When that happens, Jolin said they point to the numbers.

Specifically, they point to Multnomah County’s 2015 Point in Time Report, a comprehensive and literal head-count of the area’s homeless, done every two years.

The last one was conducted in January, 2015.

According to that count, 1,887 people are ‘unsheltered’ locally, meaning they sleep on the street, in tents or in cars.

An additional 3,801 people are homeless according to federal HUD standards, meaning they’re staying in shelters or transitional housing.

Those numbers have been rising for years, while national homeless rates have been falling.

Related: 6 reasons why Portland's homeless crisis is at a breaking point

Kafoury says in light of that, the idea of homeless people flocking here from across the country makes sense to many.

But she says, “The reality is, they’re not.”

“There are definitely individuals who fit that description. There are a few, but it's not the majority by any means,” said Jolin.

For proof, he again points to that 2015 count.

“About 20 percent of the people that we talked to had been in Multnomah County less than two years, but of those only 12 percent were homeless when they got here,” said Jolin.

That 12 percent works out to 224 people who, in the last two years, were homeless when they moved here and remain homeless.

The previous Point In Time Report, conducted every two years, shows that in 2013, that number was higher.

It showed 383 homeless people had recently moved to Portland.

In other words, advocates say, as Portland’s profile has been growing, the number of homeless people moving here has been falling.

Devendorf says there’s a reason that trend surprises people.

“Portland, as a city, has the ability to offer shelter to only about half of those experiencing homelessness,” he said. “Most of our peer cities around the country, the national average is much closer to 70 - 71 percent. So in a way, I think our homelessness is more visible. It’s more upfront because much more of it is right out in front of us.”

What’s more, Devendorf, Jolin, Kafoury and others agree that many of those who move here homeless don’t intend to stay that way for long.

That’s the case with 22-year-old Robert Brimmer, who moved to Portland two years ago from upstate New York.

“Just hoping to find work. Hoping to get bar hopping, college type, anything to get into school,” he explained.

Brimmer, who now lives in one of a handful of city-sanctioned camps, says he planned to go to Portland State University but couldn’t afford student fees.

He’s been homeless since he arrived, which he knew might happen.

“I was in a bad financial spot and I decided winter in upstate New York was probably going to be a lot harder than winter here,” he said.

And to those who are upset that he’s here, sleeping in an organized camp with limited space, he said, “To not like people for trying to immigrate in their own country to get economic opportunities is kind of arrogant, I guess. It seems silly.”

A similar sentiment came from Chris Blair, the man who theorized that homeless people “flock here.”

Turns out, Blair, a Portland native, was homeless, too.

He lived on the streets for 16 years before this father died and he was able to move in with family.

Blair had a message to those looking to understand and help Portland’s homeless, even in the smallest way.

“Don't kick a person while they're down,” he said. “Try to give them a hand up. Don't feed somebody. Teach them to fish so they can feed themselves on a continual basis. That's all I say, you know. Don't scoff. Don't be judgmental. Just have a kind heart.”

Published May 10, 2016

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