I’ve been cleaning my files of all the detritus I’ve accumulated over ten years of being at Nightwatch in order to make things at least a little easier to whoever takes my place. And I came across a survey I had been asked to fill out way back in 2009.
A downtown church was about to engage in a new search for a senior pastor and in preparation it thought it might be helpful to glean the input from a number of community leaders outside the church about the challenges the area faced. The results would help the church create some sort of understanding of the context in which its ministry was being done. Such information would be helpful to them in putting together a written profile they would be able to submit to any candidates seeking to come to Portland and assume the leadership they sought.
As I looked upon how I had answered the survey eight years ago, I was struck immediately by my answers to one particular question: “Identify major trends you envision in your community during the next five years.”
These were my answers:
- Cutback in social services
- Pressures in housing market
- Efforts to stabilize economic base without sacrificing values
I can’t remember what the hot issues were in Portland in 2009 that led me to make that third response. But what struck me that if I were to answer the same question today, I would most assuredly restate those first two answers again.
Not much progress made in these past eight years, eh?
As it happens, the area did not suffer great cutbacks in the social service arena post-2009. Some services even increased. Those offered at Nightwatch have. But clearly, whatever increase in services there may have been, it has been far outpaced by an accelerating demand.
Which segues to Answer #2. When it comes to homelessness, if there were problems with the housing market eight years ago as measured by affordable housing, they are even greater today. In 2009, the average rental rate in Portland was $1000/mo. In 2017 for comparable housing it is $1370/mo., making Portland the 16th most expensive housing market in the country. Moreover, the city’s vacancy rate is only 3%--which means that even those who can afford the rents are finding housing hard to come by. What has happened over the past eight years is a lot of talk about housing—you can read about it in The Oregonian practically every day—but no one has been able to get a comprehensive handle on any solution. And it’s a simple formula: you’ll always have homelessness if there’s not enough affordable housing.
New York has a homelessness problem on a vaster scale than our own. It’s as much in people’s awareness there as it is here, and the city has struggled to find a satisfactory way to address it. But this week, Mayor Bill De Blasio made noises as if he was finally throwing in the towel. Despite all the well-intentioned plans to “end homelessness,” he conceded that the problem was just too big. Homelessness would never be ended; the best that could be expected was that it be “managed.”
So yes, in looking ahead to next five years, housing is going to remain an issue. Moreover, given the fact that the Trump Administration is threatening to ax $6 billion dollars from the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the problem is likely to become much, much worse.
Vows have been made to make comparable cuts to other domestic programs, which means that local agencies that rely on federal grants for their funding will be forced to downsize in staff and programming, so “cutbacks in social services” will almost certainly occur. Suffering will be multiplied and magnified. And the strain will be upon agencies like Nightwatch (which never has received any government funding) to pick up the pieces.
I know that sounds like a dark scenario.
But it’s all the more reason for us to keep the light shining.