For the last 20 months, families in Multnomah County have had a right to a roof over their head.
Since the Human Solutions Family Shelter opened its expanded, year-round shelter in February 2016 at a former vegan strip club, families could come whenever they needed shelter and stay till they found more permanent housing.
But roughly two weeks ago, the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services put an end to its practice of sheltering anyone who asked for help. Instead, it is now placing some families on a wait list.
As of yesterday, there were 39 families on a wait list for shelter, officials tell WW. (Eight families facing domestic violence were admitted, however.)
The wait list is a new indication that the low-income Portland families are struggling to keep up with rent increases and that the county and city are struggling to address that crisis.
City and county officials have said they aren't equipped to solve homelessness without a massive public investment from the federal government, along the lines of the Obama administration's effort to address veteran homelessness.
“Without that, our budget is just not big enough to answer the call for every homeless family that’s on the streets,” says Christian Gaston, policy and research director for County chair Deborah Kafoury. “And that is really frustrating.”
As WW first reported in September, the number of families in the shelter (or receiving motel vouchers) more than doubled in a four month period, hitting more than 300 on a given night for the first time in August.
Part of the problem, officials say, is that families are struggling to find housing while they stay at the shelter.
Families are now staying on average for 65 days before they move to find housing, data from the joint office show. Three years ago, that number was less than 23 days.
The county instituted a screening policy in October after data suggested that out-of-towners might be moving to Portland for the shelter.
Further interviews with more than 100 families in shelter did not find a single person who moved to Oregon for shelter, according to Human Solutions. Instead, families were seeking jobs, or had friends and family here or moved back to their home state, says Andy Miller, executive director of Human Solutions.
And screening people seeking shelter did not halt the increases. The numbers swelled to nearly 500 people on one night, according to the Joint Office. That's more than three times the shelter's 133-person capacity.
The joint office decided to cut its losses, making the decision to spend limited resources on getting families into housing.
On average it costs roughly $3,000 a month for a family of four to stay in a shelter and roughly half that to rent an apartment, says Miller.
If the city and county spend resources on the homeless shelter, that in turn means fewer of the resources can be spent to provide public assistance either for families in danger of not making the rent or for already homeless families that need help moving into a home.
County officials are seeking to find a new location for a winter shelter for families, so that no one is outside in the cold.
And on Monday, the joint office is launching a "Home for the Holidays" campaign aimed at moving 40 families out of shelter by Jan. 15, calling on private landlords to make units available to the families. Many of the families already have vouchers or private means to pay rent.
"Shelter was never developed as a place in which people actually live, [but] the problem is becoming permanent for too many families," says Miller. "The ability to locate and secure housing that folks can sustain is really the missing piece."