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How We Got Here

Homelessness Timeline


Portland has Highest Homelessness in the Nation

Challenges of an exploding population and an affordable housing crisis are not new for Portland. From 1890 to 1915, Portland’s population grew from 45,000 to 225,000, a 400% increase in only 25 years.


Homelessness in Portland has been an issue since its earliest days. As a major hub for logging, shipping, agriculture, and a stop-over point for gold rushers, Portland’s rapid urbanization and economic growth in the late 1800s resulted in many skilled and unskilled men searching for work and housing. In fact, by the turn of the century, Portland had more homeless people per capita than any other U.S. city and was the fourth largest in absolute numbers - trailing only Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. *


Although they encountered a scarcity of affordable housing options and were without permanent housing, they rarely slept unsheltered on the streets. At the height of the homeless population, Portland had a variety and an abundance of single-room occupancy (SRO) options. These rooms typically consisted of a bed and minimal amenities and offered temporary shelter for both employed and unemployed homeless individuals. Although not perfect living conditions, SROs offered shelter and security during times of economic and housing instability.


*Sawyer, Chris D. From Whitechapel to Old Town: The Life and Death of The Skid Row District, Portland, Oregon. Portland State University, 1985, Ph.D. Dissertation.


100 Years Ago
America's Basic Housing Unit - Was a Bed, Not a House

In the early 20th century, housing was much more FLEXIBLE, fluid, and communal, especially in the booming cities. A home was not always a house. It was a room in a house, a hotel, or a single room occupancy (SRO), a single room with shared bathroom facilities.


Where you slept was of course what you could pay, but there was an option for every price and person. Everyone could keep a ROOF over their head.


The same cities, including Portland, that struggle to provide deeply affordable housing today eliminated their critical but maligned housing stock after World War II.


Today, HomeShare Oregon, ‘Rent a room, create a home,’ is a similar solution to the flexible and low-cost housing that Portland relied upon a century ago to house the workforce that built our city.


America's Basic Housing Unit – Evolution

The Birth of a “Starter Home”


In the post-World War II construction boom, the concept of a “starter home” or a single-family home was born. These starter homes, which were 1,400-square-foot or less, comprised the vast majority of all new construction throughout this period:


New Construction Single Family Homes - 1,400 sq ft or less

  • 1940s – 70%

  • 2020s – 8%


And while house sizes have grown and small “starter homes” for people joining the workforce, new families, or retirees have plummeted (only 8% of new home construction today is 1,400 sq ft or less), the number of people per house has fallen:


People Per Household

  • 1940s – 3.6

  • 2020s – 2.4

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In the 1970s, in North Portland, with seven family members in a 900 square-foot two-bedroom house, Keith Wilson, the chair of Shelter Portland, not unlike many families throughout Portland, grew up in a starter home and saw the benefits firsthand how these homes helped his family and others out of poverty.


By comparison, today, with a limited stock of 1,400 square feet or less houses, renting a house or homeownership is more expensive and difficult to obtain than ever.


Today, In Portland, the number of people without a home at all is rising – How will we make room for them?


Deinstitutionalization of Our Mentally Ill

The number of mentally ill patients living in state hospitals dropped from:

  • 1960 – 535,000

  • 1980 – 137,000


Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has roots in the civil rights and civil liberties movements of the 1960s, which envisioned more fulfilling lives for those who had been languishing in understaffed psychiatric hospitals through new medications and robust community-based services.


However, the rapid closure of many states’ psychiatric hospitals without sufficient community-based resources in place led to a range of unintended consequences, including homelessness, incarceration, and a lack of adequate support for those with severe mental health needs. The abrupt discharge of patients, many of whom were not equipped to navigate independent living, also contributed to an increase in the population of individuals with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system.


Cities begin banning FLEXIBLE housing, like Single Room Occupancy (SROs) Units

Between the mid-1970s to 1990s:


Portland lost 2,429 units


These single room occupancy (SROs) units, which provided affordable housing options for low-income individuals and marginalized communities, left many in our community without stable housing options, leading to an increase in housing insecurity and homelessness.


The Modern Era of Homelessness Begins

In the 1980s, the factors mentioned and many others contributed to the modern era of homelessness in the United States where today:

  • There are 582,000 homeless persons in the U.S., and

  • 140,000 suffer from severe persistent mental illness (SPMI)


Homelessness in Portland, today:

  • There are 6,297 homeless person in Portland, and

  • 3,944 that are living unsheltered


The increased visibility of homelessness in urban centers spurred public awareness and prompted various responses from federal and local governments and nonprofits. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens proliferated, and elected officials and advocacy groups began to push for policy changes to address the root causes of homelessness.


Communities Respond to The Modern Era of Homelessness

New York City

1981 “Right to Shelter” lawsuit requires shelter to be provided to every homeless man, woman, child, and family.


New York City shelter statistics today:

  • 60,000 homeless persons are sheltered per night

  • $2+ billion homeless shelter budget per year

  • Homeless shelter costs $137.74 per person per night


Percent of Homeless that are UNSHELTERED Today:

  • New York City 3%

  • Portland 59%

  • San Francisco 73%

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Mayor DeBlasio inspects a homeless shelter

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Vanderbilt YMCA - First shelter Keith Wilson stayed at in Manhattan when he was looking for work

San Diego

In December 2017, The Alpha Project’s Bridge Shelter opened in downtown San Diego:

  • 200 persons per night

  • 24-hour permanent shelter

  • $3 million to setup large tent structure

  • $3 million per year to operate

  • Shelter Costs $52.50 per person per night

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Lakesha Jones, Manager - Veterans Village Bridge Shelter, 200 souls – 10 women & 190 men

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Salt Lake City 

In 2020, The Gail Miller Resource Center shelter opened with the Road Home as its operator:

  • 300 persons per night

  • 24-hour permanent shelter

  • $27 million construction cost

  • Mini police precinct located inside

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Mike Young, director of shelter operations for the Road Home, and Sergeant Nathan Meinzer of the Salt Lake City Police Department. Police anonymous survey of shelter residents found that only 1% of respondents felt “Less Safe” because of the community policing presence.


In 2020, The Gail Miller Resource Center shelter opened with the Road Home as its operator:

  • 300 persons per night

  • 24-hour permanent shelter

  • $27 million construction cost

  • Mini police precinct located inside

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Portland now has 3,149 permanent shelter beds that cost $62 on average per night, have a two to four week wait list before gaining access and take years to plan and millions to build.


In the 1980’s, Portland’s leaders found a way to deliver safety and security to our unsheltered at a fraction of the cost of a permanent shelter and could be rapidly deployed in months in place of years to meet the humanitarian crisis that plagued our city.


Portland Ended Unsheltered Homelessness

Homelessness in the 80s was endemic to Old Town, Skid Road

Mayor Bud Clark’s mission was to help those experiencing homelessness. He created a shelter network that was FLEXIBLE and expanded as needed to meet the demands on a daily basis.


He insisted on a balanced approach, that all citizens, including those unhoused, were entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of the community resulting from an accepted and respected “Community Standard.” For example, shop owners are just as entitled to expect that their doorways or sidewalks are free from their use as a bedroom or toilet as an unhoused person is to have a place to toilet as well as sleep safely and protected from the elements.


With the shelter network in place, Mayor Clark and his team were able to keep the city virtually free of campsites. A City of Portland report to the Mayor, Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness: The Portland Model, summarized the success:

“The emergency shelter system has capacity to handle those who need it. Anyone who wants emergency shelter can now get it. No one is forced to sleep in the streets.”

This nationally lauded plan with the goal of keeping the streets clear and open for business included:



  • Churches opened emergency shelters at night repurposing their facilities back to normal operations during the day

  • 10-hour nighttime only non-permanent shelter

  • The city rescued SRO’s being edged out by gentrification

  • The city removed the trash off the street (Program became Downtown Clean & Safe)

  • CHIERS Sobering Center opened

  • Services for mental illness and alcohol and drug treatment increased

  • The whole plan was implemented in 12 months

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Mayor Clark leads officials (including Commission Lindberg, a Shelter Portland Leadership Council member) on a walking tour of Old Town to see how policies are affecting the neighborhood, Oregonian

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Mayor Bud Clark stands in front of Union Station, the centerpiece of a renovation project he says will eliminate Skid Road, Oregonian

“The cycle of homelessness can be broken, and the constant drain of support can stop for those that reach self-sufficiency. Those who cannot reach self-sufficiency can be accommodated in a way that does not detract from the security and comfort of the city’s residents, or the vitality of its businesses. The city can be an exciting, growing, livable home for all its citizens.”

Unfortunately, the solutions that were effective in Portland only a few decades ago are no longer being employed and our shop owner’s doorways are once again being used as a bedroom and toilet.

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Back to the Future

Today, Shelter Portland is pursuing a similar strategy as outlined in the ‘Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness: The Portland Model,’ to care for our community today.


“Housing First” is Born

Housing First is an approach to connect people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions or barriers such as sobriety, treatment, or service participation requirements, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Supportive services are offered to maximize housing stability and prevent returns to homelessness as opposed to meeting predetermined treatment goals as a requirement to gain permanent housing entry. The model was popularized by Sam Tsemberis and Pathways to Housing in New York.


Numerous studies show that housing first participants experience higher levels of housing retention and use fewer emergency and criminal justice services, which produces cost savings in emergency department use, inpatient hospitalizations, and criminal justice system use.

  • 75% and 91% of households remain housed a year after being rapidly re-housed, according to multiple studies.

  • $31,545 in cost savings per person housed, according to one study.

  • Another study showed that a Housing First program could cost up to $23,000 less per consumer per year than a shelter program.

Considering the deinstitutionalization of our mental health hospitals and systems that began in the 1960s, Housing First has proven successful at addressing the hardest-to-serve chronically homeless population, a substantial number of whom are mentally ill.


Today, in Portland, 72% of people sleeping outside reported a mental illness, chronic physical condition, and/or substance use disorder, and for those people traditional affordable housing is often not enough and emergency shelter is at best a short-term solution.


Examples of Housing First:


  • The historic Henry Building is a six-story building in downtown

  • SRO - Single Room Occupancy

  • 172 Low Barrier Units

  • $37,674,708 total cost to build

  • $46.57 cost per person per night with PSH

  • $30.13 cost per person per night without PSH

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Picture of a room at The Henry, SRO, in downtown Portland. After graduating from Oregon State University and moving to New York City to work, Keith Wilson lived in an SRO for two years similar to the one pictured.

Lisbon, Portugal

In 2009, the Association for the Study and Psychosocial Integration (AEIPS) in Portugal after visiting Pathways to Housing, the originators of the Housing First model, in New York City, set up 15 Housing First type units to stabilize and integrate those suffering from severe persistent mental illness (SPMI) into the community. By almost all measures, the program has been a success with housing Lisbon’s chronically homeless persons who suffer from mental illness and other disabilities. Today, AEIPS in Lisbon provides:

  • 400 apartments – “Most program participants are seeking privacy – they may be hearing voices or up at night talking”

  • Independent living in community

  • 90% of program members suffer from SPMI

  • 60% receive medication to treat disorder and, in some cases, dependent on behavior, required to maintain housing

  • 35% are substance users

  • AEIPS provides case worker and limited cleaning services

  • Psychotic episode with potential harm to self or others results in public safety department transport to public health facility, not jail

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A photo of Robert and his case worker Sofia Lewis, in his home in Lisbon. Robert suffers from schizophrenia symptoms and was chronically homeless in Lisbon until AEIPS Housing First assistance.

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Teresa Duarte, AEIPS Lisbon Housing First Director, in Robert’s neighborhood, where the community helps look out after him.

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Robert’s neighborhood. If Housing First participant is placed in an apartment, AEIPS will limit program participants in any one building to no more than 5% of residents.

Permanent housing is the goal, but it won’t shelter Portland’s unsheltered today. With a five-year housing wait list, our city has normalized homeless encampments and asks our neighbors to wait outside in unsafe, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions.



Congressional Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act

The federal government accelerates the shift from shelter to Housing First.


The HEARTH Act helped entrench federal support for Housing First and expand the availability of permanent housing beyond people experiencing chronic (long term) homelessness to families, youth, and nondisabled, single adults (short term).

Hearth Act Emphasis:


Prior to HEARTH implementation:

  • Shelter focused on providing safety and services for those experiencing a rare, brief, and nonrecurring short term homeless event (often nondisabled).

  • Housing First (Permanent Supportive Housing – PSH) was developed to help those suffering from long term chronic homelessness (often disabled by mental illness, addiction, or physically).

2012 HEARTH Provisions go into effect:

  • Housing First becomes a “Whole System Orientation” and applies to both short term and long term homelessness (both nondisabled and disabled).

  • Federal funding for short term emergency shelter is reduced.

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In 2014, following the HEARTH Act guidance, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) encouraged governments to view Housing First as a “whole system orientation,” making Housing First the underlying approach behind every community's response to homelessness, whether a person is healthy, short term houseless, or suffering from addiction, mental illness, or a medical disability and long term homeless.


The HEARTH Act ushered in a period of success (increase in PSH units), missed opportunities (decreased shelter capacity), and remaining challenges (skyrocketing unsheltered homeless).


Today, the federal government’s portion of our City / County Joint Office of Homeless Services annual budget is minimal (7%). Portland needs a solution tailored not by federal policy, but by local disaster recovery needs. A program that is paid for by Portland and tailored to care specifically for Portlanders to end unsheltered homelessness and the suffering of both the unhoused and housed in our community.

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