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Replicating Failed Policy of Mass Shelters Perpetuates Human Suffering and Kills Neighborhoods.

By August 13, 2018September 25th, 2018No Comments


1. Homelessness: Oregon is the Model of Failure.
2. What is our current policy making process.
3. What do successful jurisdictions do differently?
4. What does the past teach us about what works and what does not work?

A. Concentrating service-dependent people creates ghettos that are unhealthful for the people served and for the neighborhood.
B. Mass shelters provide fertile ground for the spread of contagious disease.
C. Work programs work.
D. Open LEADERSHIP founded upon data and performance is critical to success
E. Housing First, NOT Mass Shelters

5. What can mere citizens do?

 1.   Homelessness: Oregon is the Model of Failure

The United States government ranks success and failure of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia.  Here’s how Oregon ranks:

  • Homeless families with children: 50 out of 51.  51.9% of our homeless families with kids do not have any shelter. That compares to 0% for all five of the top five.
  • Homeless youth: 47 out of 51.
  • Homeless veterans: 49 out of 51.
  • Homeless people, generally: 49 out of 51.

It is fair to conclude our current process has not worked.

2.     What is our current policy-making process?

Opportunistic government by ambush: Elected officials freeze out normal neighbors, announce new beds for people addicted to drugs and pose for social media.  Then, if concerned citizens raise legitimate concerns, government officials deny, minimize or do not address the concerns.  Instead, officials denigrate citizens and their concerns by labeling citizens as non-compassionate NIMBYs.  (“Ad hominem” is a Latin phrase referring to a debate strategy to avoid discussing the merits of a position by attacking the character, motive or other attribute of the person stating the position or making the argument.)

3.     What do successful jurisdictions do differently?

Instead of dividing people, they bring people together for a common vision around data-driven policies that have succeeded in the past.  We, too, should use an open and informed decision making process instead of replicating failed processes and policies.

4.     What does the past teach us with respect to what works and what does not work?

           A.  Concentrating service-dependent people creates ghettos that are unhealthful for the people served and for the neighborhood.  

Homelessness and poverty are nothing new.  History has seen waves of homelessness.

  • The period of early industrialization in London and Paris.
  • Colonization in Asia, Africa and South America.
  • In the United States, in the 1870s, we had a period of “tramping.”
  • During the roaring 20s homelessness spiked in a two-tiered economy (much like today) and then worsened during the Great Depression.

The United States enacted its first federal housing act in 1937, which funded construction of housing for the poor, leaving to localities the operational costs.

Fast forward the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson led the “War on Poverty.”  We established the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965.

We built “the projects,” in which we concentrated poor and welfare-dependent people, which created ghettos that limited residents’ human potential.  It was a bad idea.  It was bad for those we tried to help, and it was bad for the surrounding areas, into which blight sprawled.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan led the “War against Welfare,” rolling back social welfare programs.  Old timers here in Portland think the 1980s cutbacks ramped up the number of visible poor in Portland.

Scholars began to describe a new urban blight: “service-dependent urban ghettos” for a variety of service-dependent groups, including the mentally and physically disabled, ex-offenders, and addicts.  The landmark book on the topic is Landscapes of Despair.

Those of us who have lived in Portland for decades have witnessed how creating service-dependent ghettos without adequate anti-drug law enforcement hurts people and neighborhoods.

Chinatown used to be a great place to visit.  I enjoyed going to dim sum with co-workers.  Then city leaders permitted more and more beds for drug buyers and refuses to crack down on drug sellers.

I personally know a teenager from a rural town who went to the Chinatown / Entertainment District to acquire heroin.  He died within weeks.  I remember Tate by referring to the area around Old Town, the train station and bus depot the “Drug Acquisition District.”

We spent $47 million to build Bud Clark Commons, in which we corralled another 100-200 potential customers for drug sellers into in the Drug Acquisition District next to the train and bus depots. Sure enough, they wheel out overdosed dead people from Bud Clark Commons on a regular basis and blight sprawls.  Dispatch reports note 872 calls between 7/11/2015 and 7/10/2018, including 15 death investigations plus assaults, suicide attempts, harassment, disturbances with weapons, etc.  Read ’em and weep over the human suffering.  Marvel that so-called leaders want to continue the failed approach of gathering drug users to enable an easy match with drug sellers.

In the 30 years since the rise of service-dependent ghettos, we’ve learned location and design of service delivery mattersBest practice is to decentralize service-dependent populations.  When you are in a hole, quit digging.  Make it harder for drug-selling predators to reach their prey.  Don’t provide them a new market with one hundred new beds and nothing for the occupants to do all day.

Yet, Portland refuses to learn from its mistakes or the experience of others  More back-room deals spawned the mass shelter for SE Foster and a plan for ANOTHER 100-200 beds in the Drug Acquisition District by the train depot with Mr. Homer Williams’ “Oregon Harbor of Hope.”  It will “Welcome those living with addiction, physical and mental disabilities or criminal histories . . . with no time limit for guests.”  The proposed aluminum structure is designed to last forever and is warranted to last for 50 years. The structure’s cover is warranted to last 25 years.  Ironically, it was Mr. Williams who stopped the move of Right to Dream, Too to the adjacent lot across the tracks.  He said it was a bad place for homeless.  I have not heard why the place is so much better now.

In fact, it is a bad place.  The Drug Acquisition District is over capacity for absorbing more shelters for service-dependent people.  The city has promised for years to stop adding to the service-dependent ghetto, including in the 2017 Central City Plan for 2035.

Yet, our so-called leaders continue to spawn more bad ideas behind closed doors and ambush neighborhoods already suffering from crime.

          B.     Mass Shelters Provide Fertile Ground for the Spread of Contagious Disease

The Centers for Disease Control has noted higher incidences of tuberculosis, Hepatitis A and other contagious diseases among the homeless.  The CDC offers suggestions on best practices to reduce the spread of disease.  These include maintaining bed maps and tracking bed assignments in a searchable electronic format. Unfortunately, those suggestions gather dust as some shelters do not even bother to check identification.

          C.     Work programs work.

During the poverty and homeless crises of the 1930s, we created programs to help people, not simply warehouse them.  Among the successes was the Civilian Conservation Corps:  have people build barracks, work on useful projects, let them earn money, sobriety and self-respect.  Some states have copied that model.

Some cities do something similar.  Albuquerque engages people on the street and offers them day jobs cleaning up the city.  Certainly, Portland needs trash pick-up and cleaning.  After work, the private agency that employs the workers assesses their needs and helps them move forward.  Basically, Albuquerque has developed a “navigation center” disguised as a jobs program. 

          D.     Open LEADERSHIP around data and performance is critical.

In 10 years, Texas reduced homelessness by 40.8%.  Houston’s Mayor started by building consensus around real-world facts and data.  They started with a critical analysis of what provides the best bang for the buck.  That meant cutting funding to some of the well-connected, good-old-boy providers “with high-profile boards, strong community brands and decades of service carrying out their missions in good faith.” Houston reallocated money.  Houston did not denigrate and divide interested citizens who had different views by attacking their motives as uncompassionate NIMBYs.

          E.     Housing First, NOT Mass Shelters

In 10-years, Florida reduced homelessness by 33%.  Salt Lake City reduced chronically homeless by 86%  Medicine Hat, Canada has eliminated chronically homeless people.

How?  They changed their approach:

Failed Old Approach

  • Homeless climb a series of rungs up a virtuous ladder back into society.  They get emergency shelter, blankets, meals, before addressing mental illness or substance abuse issues.  Once sober and stable, find a home and job. Yet, too many opportunities to fall off the ladder.

Successful New Approach:  Housing First

  • Get people into apartments or homes.  Then, offer therapy and health care.  Decentralize.  Do not group into mass shelters, single building, or same neighborhood.

Putting homeless people in homes seems is a no-brainer, and was confirmed by the 2018 study by Portland State University / Oregon Harbor of Hope.  The study offered four proposals.  Two involved gathering more data and the other two?   Match people with empty rooms (seems someone could develop an app for that) and reduce barriers to the development of affordable housing.  It did NOT recommend more shelter beds in the Drug Acquisition District or other high-crime neighborhoods.

5.     What can citizens do?

City leaders do not pay attention to logic, reason and best practices.  Trying to persuade through thoughtful community discussion has proven a waste of time.  For an example, look at the letter from the Old Town Chinatown Community Association.  If that won’t educate and persuade leaders, nothing will.


  • Make law through the initiative process.
  • Hold landowners and occupiers accountable for the nuisance they create through lawsuits by damaged neighbors.
  • Hold landowners and operators accountable for assaults and injuries to their  “guests” at the hands of other “guests” who were admitted without adequate screening for the safety of others.
  • Challenge aspects of the location and construction that do not meet current requirements.
  • Investigate how it is government property goes to individuals without any competitive bidding.  For example, Mr. Williams purchased the “Lot 7” that was proposed for Right 2 Dream, Too without any competitive bid.  His Oregon Harbor of Hope is getting a sweetheart deal on land that had been reserved for an office project.

Jeff Merrick

(c) 2018 by Jeff Merrick

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