We're spending more money than ever on homelessness, but where is that cash going?

Photo:KATU News

PORTLAND, Ore. – Spending on homelessness continues to rise. The City of Portland is spending a record $31 million for homelessness this year. The number of homeless people rose too. But where is your money going?

The vast majority of your cash is for housing, according new research compiled by Multnomah County.

The emphasis on housing makes sense. A lack of housing, experts say, is one of the main reasons we have a homeless problem in the first place. According to the most recent Point-In-Time Count of Homelessness, compiled every other year, homelessness rose by about 10 percent overall. There were 4,177 people who met the definition of homeless in 2017, up from 3,801 in 2015.

EcoNorthwest, a public policy consulting agency, published a report in December detailing what the Portland-area is dealing with. Between 2010 and 2016, they found we added just seven homes for every ten households that moved here.

“Rents have just gone up too fast, that’s tied in part to the fact that we haven't built much housing as we've added population,” said John Tapogna, president of EcoNorthwest.

Also in December, Multnomah County researchers published a comprehensive new report on how your tax dollars are being spent on homelessness. The research went beyond published budget and took a look at actual spending. The most recent data came from 2017. The report is embedded below.

Between 2014 and 2017, researchers found spending increase more than 70 percent, to $84 million. That money came from Portland, Multnomah County, along with state and federal sources.

One big chunk of your money, about $21 million, goes towards what’s called rapid rehousing. That helps people get into a home, or stay in their current one.

“A lot of the new investment that we've seen over the past couple years, has gone to paying for the rental assistance, the subsidy that we can attach to individuals who are going to need that to compete in this market place and find housing that is affordable to them,” said George Devendorf, executive director of Transition Projects, a local non-profit that works closely with the city and county.

According to county researchers, about $14 million went towards rent assistance. About $4.5 million went towards case management.

On any given day, Devendorf works with about 50 people who help clients find an affordable home.

“In many respects, it's a glorified version of a real estate agent,” he said.

About 17,000 people in Multnomah County and the Portland received housing and prevention services in 2017.

Tapogna says high rents are to blame for the severity of the homeless problem. Across the tri-county area, EcoNorthwest research found there are close to 100,000 people sitting on the edge of homelessness thanks to a housing shortage. About 32,000 are receiving some sort of rent assistance, but about 56,000 more could use it.

Helping the other 56,000 people, Tapogna says, would create and immediate and noticeable difference in the homeless population. When asked how much that would cost, he told KATU News it would be close to half-a-billion dollars.

Chronic homelessness is a different story, more complicated than just high rent. It includes mental illness, substance abuse, and more. They are homeless for more than a year at a time, or those who regularly fall in and out of homelessness.

Between 2015 and 2017, the total number of chronically homeless individuals increased by almost 25 percent. They make up about one-third of the homeless population.

Supportive housing provides a place to stay, and includes other services like mental health and addiction treatment. It’s been identified as a national best-practice for helping the chronically homeless.

“The biggest thrust you're going to see that's different from the past is this desire to invest in supportive housing,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told KATU News.

There are currently about 3,500 supportive housing units in Multnomah County. In 2018, the city and county committed to adding 2,000 more.

“We need those 2,000 units, and additional units,” said Devendorf. “Beyond that, we need funds to pay for supportive services to make those placements successful for individuals who are particularly high need.”

According to Multnomah County, it could cost about $600 million over the next ten years to build those 2,000 units. It would cost about $45 million per year to operate after that. The funds could be spread across all levels of government, private development, philanthropic and health care sectors.

So, is the money we’re spending producing results?

Research shows that while the number of homeless increased overall, there are fewer people living on the streets without shelter. The number of people staying in shelters doubled between 2015 and 2017. The city and county doubled the number of shelter beds.

Given what has happened with rents and the population growth around Portland, Tapogna says they expected homelessness to be worse than it is.

“The fact that the problem is not bigger in a housing market that is as hot, and with rents rising as fast as they are, is a credit to government,” he said.

Mayor Wheeler said he can't convince people that the city and county are actually reducing the amount of homelessness around Portland. He said the community will decide for themselves if their plan is working.

"I believe ultimately I can give data, I can give facts, I can give Point in Time information, but at the end of the day it's going to be how people perceive the problem in the community," Wheeler said.

While spending increased across the board, there was a particular emphasis in spending on women. It increased almost 200 percent from 2014 to 2017.

There was $5.8 million in funds dedicated towards women. Most of that went towards women's shelters.

While spending increased across the board, there was a particular emphasis in spending on women. It increased almost 200 percent from 2014 to 2017.

There was $5.8 million in funds dedicated towards women. Most of that went towards women's shelters.

The increase in spending coincided with a 17 percent increase in the population of homeless women. There were 1,355 women who were considered homeless in 2017.

Most of funds were distributed to just a handful of organizations. Those organizations then spend the money directly.

More than half of everything spent in 2017 on homelessness went to just three organizations: Home Forward, Transition Projects, and Central City Concern.

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