Rep. Knute Buehler, the Republican candidate for Oregon governor, made a dramatic pledge today that will elevate the issues of homelessness and housing during this fall's election season.
Buehler pledged get every homeless Oregonian off the streets within five years.
"This is a message of home and inspiration," said Buehler opening a press conference that he ended by faulting Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, for rising homelessness. "I'll lead on this important issue where Governor Brown has failed."
Homelessness is increasing in Oregon, as it in Washington and California. A housing shortage remains one of the biggest problems on the West Coast.
The promise to end homelessness is a new one for a governor's race. But Portland has seen what can happen when an elected official campaigns on reducing homelessness—so the pledge may be greeted with skepticism.
"Typically, politicians that make pledges to end homelessness aren't capable of understanding the issue, much less substantively addressing it," says Israel Bayer, former executive director of Street Roots, the organization that puts out a newspaper distributed by homeless vendors.
But Bayer sees one benefit to such big pledges: "It offers an opportunity to get to something more substantive."
When Mayor Ted Wheeler was running for office in 2015, he pledged to have a shelter bed for every homeless person on the streets by the end of his second year in office—that's four months away and it won't happen. An effort to guarantee homeless families a right to housing also collapsed—when the roof of the county's largest family shelter started falling in.
But Wheeler last September declared victory on his shelter pledge, saying the shelter system had expanded by 1,800 beds, the estimated number of people on the streets at the time of his December 2015 pledge. (Wheeler's office declined to comment on Buehler's campaign event.)
And Wheeler isn't the only Portland politician to pledge to end the problem.
Before that, there was a 10-year push to end homelessness as part of a federal program—a program, pushed by the President George W. Bush administration, that local officials embraced and then failed to achieve, instead seeing an increase in homelessness during the recession.
Buehler's strategy to end homelessness rests in part on a pledge to increase by 4,000 the number of shelter beds—and 4,000 new units of supportive housing. He puts the state dollar figure at $10 million for the first biennium, with the idea that local and federal dollars will provide for the rest.
In Portland and Multnomah County, $10 million a year covers about 1,000 beds. The two jurisdictions have been putting a dent on street homelessness while increasing the number of shelter beds. (That price tag does not include capital investments or security the shelter space, says Joint Office of Homeless Services spokesman Denis Theriault.)
That doesn't even tackle the issue of funding devoted to help move people out of shelter and into housing.
Brown's campaign spokesman Christan Gaston said he doubted whether Buehler's plan is practical.
"Knute Buehler's plan doesn't add up," he said. "Building 8,000 shelter beds will cost 10 times the $10 million he's proposing to spend. If half of those are supportive housing units, the price tag will climb higher. This isn't a serious proposal."
Buehler's campaign responded by saying the dollars would be matched by federal and local contributions and private efforts, including using surplus facilities like the former jail, Wapato, as a treatment center and shelter.
Other key aspects of Buehler's homelessness plan include the following:
*It's not all public investment in shelters. Buehler says cities should be allowed to enforce stricter rules against camping as well as sitting or lying on sidewalks—a concept he notes was bipartisan back in 2013, when the Democratic leadership of the Oregon House (Speaker Tina Kotek and Rep. Jennifer Williamson) also supported a bill that didn't make it through the Senate.
*He supports $50 million over five years in rental assistance for low-income renters. That sounds like a lot, but in the face of a tenant protections bill, the state's largest landlords backed a $25 million-a-year program, WW reported in 2016.
*He says he would work to increase state Medicaid funding of mental health clinics, a change he argues would help decrease emergency room visits but would require negotiating with the feds.