Ben Carson, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, talks about the homelessness problems plaguing California and Oregon are as if they could be solved, and quickly, if only we’d try harder. Unfortunately, it isn’t lack of effort that’s at issue.
Carson relied on numbers from the federal Point in Time shelter count of 2019 to make his case. While the trends are no doubt right, the count itself may well underestimate the size of the problem. It includes only those who respond voluntarily. In Oregon in 2019, the count found 15,889 homeless men, women and children in the state, an increase of 13.2% from the previous year. Of that number, 10,139, or 64 percent, were unsheltered.
Locally, the tri-county area reported 880 homeless in the 2019 count; almost 70%, 614, were unsheltered.
One big problem, both in California and Oregon, is that there simply are not enough dwellings to meet demand. In Bend, for example, it would take about 5,000 new dwellings a year to meet housing needs. The city council’s goal of 3,000 units is good, and may well be met, but it will not cure the problem.
Restrictions on building in both California and Oregon make it hard for communities to respond to a housing crisis with any kind of speed, and that, in turn, drives the cost of housing up. It’s been a real problem in Central Oregon, where well over half the homeless we see today were housed right here before they were homeless.
Meanwhile, if the Trump administration had its way, the homelessness problem could be much worse, both locally and nationwide. Each budget the president has sent to Congress has proposed dramatic cuts to HUD funds for housing; so far, Congress has refused to go along.
Carson is right, however, to recognize it’s going to take more from states to solve housing problems. Oregon did just that in 2018, when it approved a bill to allow some housing outside urban growth boundaries. That was a test, however. It, and other measures that give cities more money and flexibility when it comes to housing, will need permanence if they’re to have a long-lasting impact on the problem.