Robert Pulster of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness addresses the Portland City Council Jan. 13. Among other things, he said limiting shelter occupancy does not help promote greater regional response to the problem of homelessness. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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City councilors heard from a national expert on homelessness in a workshop Monday in anticipation of a discussion and possible vote on shelter policy guidelines scheduled for Feb. 3. 

Robert Pulster, regional coordinator with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said the Health and Human Service Committee’s proposed resolution is “very strong” and offered an optimistic perspective on many of the concerns that have been raised in discussions about Portland’s proposed emergency homeless shelter.

He told the council that the work of the USICH is based on the belief that an end to homelessness is possible. Great progress on that front has been made with veterans, Pulster said, with veteran homelessness dropping by 51 percent since 2010. He said his office works with communities to establish systems that ensure that when homelessness does occur, it is “rare, brief and one time.” 

Portland is working toward what Pulster calls a “Shelter 2.0” model, a single emergency shelter for adults, with low barriers for entry where many services are available in one building. He said Houston, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., are also developing such shelters. 

When Councilor Kimberly Cook asked for examples from cities of similar size to Portland, and questioned how those cities are funding their shelters, Pulster said he works with much larger cities, but the themes and strategies can be similar. 

He said the majority are being developed with city funds, but that some cities, like Houston, have leveraged private investments from downtown businesses that have an interest in moving homeless people out of the downtown area. In other cities, he said, health-care institutions have invested in shelters, because a large portion of their costs come from serving high-frequency users who are often homeless. Another funding possibility, he suggested, is to include a private donation component.  

Cook also asked how these cities memorialized shelter policies, and Pulster said it is usually done through the procurement process, with any policy guidance laid out in the contract with a vendor that runs the shelter. However, he said, Boston is a nearby example of a city that runs its shelter with city staff. 

Portland has picked Riverside Drive in the Riverton neighborhood as its shelter site, which is five miles from downtown. Councilor Tae Chong asked how to encourage people who are accustomed to being downtown or feel it’s too far away to go to the shelter, and questioned if such efforts would require increasing the budget. 

Pulster said the shelter should not be thought of as a standalone entity, but part of a larger system. An important piece of that system, he said, is street outreach, both to encourage the homeless to come to the shelter, and to tailor diversions early. He suggested police and fire staff could provide outreach with other city staff as backup.

People experiencing homelessness would not necessarily consider it more convenient to navigate services scattered downtown than if they were in the same building, he said, adding that policies that promote dignity, respect and safety make shelters more welcoming so people would want to go there despite the distance. Pet policies and allowing couples to stay together would also encourage utilization.

“Don’t set up preconditions that are going to preclude them,” Pulster said. “You want to do everything you can to bring them inside; isn’t that the point?”

But once a homeless person arrives, he said, triage teams can help divert that person from even spending a night at the shelter. If no diversions can be found right away, the shelter with its services offered can serve as a springboard to housing. 

Councilor Belinda Ray pointed out that a city bus stops a quarter mile from the proposed shelter site. Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said that street outreach is already happening, and the shelter proposal includes a transportation model.

Pulster also spoke about the need for “good-neighbor” policies that minimize the impact on the neighborhood, so that it will support the shelter. These should discourage loitering, through such things as inner courtyards and indoor waiting areas, and keep open a good line of communication through neighborhood meetings.  

Ray noted that many of the good-neighbor policies Pulster mentioned are already in the city’s emergency shelter ordinance. 

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones asked for clarification on why the capacity outlined in the proposed resolution is around 200, when it had been 150 in earlier discussions. Ray said the committee reasoned that because the council had voted unanimously last year to keep all the overflow sites open, the new shelter should have the capacity for the current numbers of homeless the city is serving. 

The resolution recommends the shelter be built to accommodate the average nightly numbers served over the past 12 months. That number has dropped slightly since the last time the council discussed the resolution, to 197 from 208, because there was a low of 120 users in November. 

Chong asked about national trends in homelessness, wondering if a shelter built to current homeless numbers would be too large in the long term. Pulster said that from 2010-2019 the numbers have declined, but just looking more recently the trend is upward, with an increase in the number of single, homeless adults from 2017-2019. 

Cook raised concerns that, if Portland does not set a cap, its shelter could serve as the emergency shelter for the entire state, noting that the only other low-barrier shelter in the state, Hope House in Bangor, has a cap of 65. She also said staff at Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter have reported seeing police from other municipalities drop people off at the Portland shelter.  

Although her questions raised some tension among other councilors, Pulster said that the same concerns come up in every community he works with. 

“While it’s a concern to get a more regional approach, I have not seen a limitation or cap set to respond to that,” he said. “That would be somewhat unique to Portland.”

He acknowledged it is difficult to come up with a reasonable response to the issue in a way that can be codified, since homeless people are so transient that it is hard to establish a particular municipality as their residence. 

Ray said that there has been some progress in developing a regional response to homelessness, and noted that when 350 asylum seekers arrived in Portland last summer, neighboring municipalities stepped in to help. She said she has been working with Greater Portland Council of Governments’ Metro Regional Coalition to develop an interlocal agreement outlining the roles of each municipality to respond to future emergency situations. 

According to minutes of the coalition meeting held Jan. 10, Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Chappell said a few municipalities in the county are ready today to manage an emergency shelter on their own, and committed the agency to help MRC municipalities inventory assets and draft individual emergency shelter plans and mutual aid agreements for temporary emergency shelter situations.

In addition, Ray said surrounding municipalities have been considering building housing-first facilities, and representatives of some of those communities will be touring one such facility in Portland next month.