GOAL: Get every homeless person into transitional housing in Portland within two years.
Provide every homeless person in the Portland Metro (and nationally) with a warm room and safe space to live within 2 years by creating a federally funded crash construction program for dormitory housing for people that need shelter that is low cost, safe, and secure.
We may be missing a piece of the puzzle with our current approach to sheltering and housing the homeless. For temporary housing, the focus is on shelters, tent sites, tiny homes, parking zones, hotel conversions, etc. None are ideal and none are meant to be long-term solutions.
The real goal is permanent housing through construction or conversion of new affordable units and funding vouchers for existing rentals. Yet there are deep structural issues in housing supply and demand that suggest we may not be able to build our way to enough low cost housing fast enough to meet the need at a time when there is demand at every price point.
We need a faster, more scalable solution right now – something better than a shelter bed, but more scalable and faster to build than permanent housing and something that is both considerate of and geared to the population we are attempting to serve.
The Case for Transitional Dorms
This campaign proposes adding dormitory-style housing (1-person, 1-room) into the mix to solve our homelessness crisis. If you have ever been to college, you probably lived in a dorm. College-style dorm housing may offer a chance to end Portland’s homelessness crisis.
This crisis did not happen overnight, but it has accelerated dramatically in recent years. Solutions have been proposed. Voters have approved Measure 26-210 that included a 1% tax on high income earners and larger businesses. There is energy and focus on adding shelter beds, identifying camping and parking sites, funding transitional housing conversions of hotels even office buildings. The community is creating more affordable permanent housing and funding more vouchers. Good people are doing hard work. Progress is being made.
However, the deep structural issues in housing supply and demand suggest we may not be able to build our way to enough permanent low cost housing fast enough to meet the need, a need that could grow worse in the next big economic downturn. We need a faster, more scalable solution right now that will be sustainable when the money gets tighter.
Dormitory style housing might fill the gap. If the idea has merit, it offers the potential to end homelessness in Portland in two years with 6-10 large dormitory facilities chartered and run by nonprofits, supported by both local and state resources and staff, and funded with federal dollars (existing or new).
Why dorms? Dorms are simple, cost-efficient, and safe.
Dormitory housing, at least when I went to college, was basic and functional. You get a room with a bed, a desk, cabinets, and a lockable door. What I got as a student was a safe place to study and live. Why can’t we do the same for our homeless population?
In the dorm that I lived in as a student, bathroom and shower facilities were shared, yet private (stalls, doors, etc.). Shared facilities makes construction faster and more affordable and maintenance easier than individual apartments. In a crisis, speed is everything.
This type of housing for a college student was not just adequate, it was ideal. By definition, most college students can’t afford an apartment, much less a lease deposit and first and last month’s rent. Nor do most college students have time to maintain an apartment, stock a kitchen, cook their own food, or fix the toilet. A dorm solves all of those problems well and cheaply for students. It could for our homeless population as well.
Dorms foster a sense of community. Unlike a hotel conversion (a transactional space at best), every floor in the dorms I lived in had a common space that encouraged gathering. That common space was for watching TV, playing games, hanging out, and holding meetings and educational sessions. Homeless people need community just as much, if not more, than students.
College-style dorms typically come with a cafeteria for residents that provide inexpensive, healthy food multiple times a day on a regular schedule with take-away options for later hours. A transitional housing dorm could have the same.
Every dorm had a live-in staff and every floor had a Resident Advisor (RA) to provide safety and support. As a 20-year old RA, I dealt with counseling and mental health issues (suicide prevention), enforced safety rules (large parties), managed conflict (noise complaints, disputes), prevented theft (frat boys stealing a couch – okay, it was a bit comical), and was on call (rotating) for emergencies. A transitional dorm would have similar staffing and support, but more professional and experienced than my 20-year old self.
Because dorms are not apartments, they are easier, faster, and cheaper to build. A single dorm with 6-10 floors can house 300-500 people. Ten such dorms could get as many as 5,000 people off the streets.
A transitional housing dorm would come with more services and support than a college student dorm. If you have a transitional population in one place, you can provide support services more efficiently from mental health counseling to primary care, state/federal benefit and support services enrollment to employment and job placement assistance. We know from recent reporting in the Oregonian that current city outreach is incomplete and challenging. A dorm-type facility would make it possible to solve that problem.
A transitional housing dorm would give every resident a stable address that allows them to get established, enable employment, enroll for social services and benefits, and model a transition to permanent housing – without leaving people in the cold and rain in shelters, tents, or tiny homes while they wait.
There is a temptation to look at our homeless crisis as temporary, that it can be resolved if we can just add more permanent housing and vouchers faster. I have a grimmer assessment of the challenge we face. We have a much broader, more structural crisis in affordable housing with many more thousands of people on the edge of homelessness and a massive imbalance in supply and demand with costs rising fast. These imbalances may not be resolved for many years to come.
Dorms are not a permanent solution, nor should they be. But if they were good enough for us when we were students and good enough to send our kids to now – often for years at a time. Then we should at least take a good look at whether a community transitional housing dorm option is worth building and deploying at scale.
Can we do it fast enough? China can build a hospital in two weeks and a skyscraper in less than 30 days. It’s time to show what we are made of. Ten dorm buildings in 12-18 months is a worthy goal and could be a template for the rest of the nation to follow. If we could get every person off the street and into a dorm with a warm bed and a secure space, it would qualify as one of our finest moments, something every leader in this city could be proud of. It would also be a national role model, a focus of acclaim and positive attention – something Portland has not had a lot of lately.
This campaign proposes to make federal funding available, either existing or new, and will work with city and country officials to prioritize getting facilities built as fast as possible. Months not years should be the goal. The community goal should be to get to zero homelessness in Portland within 2 years.
These dorms should be chartered and managed by nonprofits and should have oversight and inspection from appropriate city and federal agencies. I’ve volunteered at Blanchet House. They are an example of a nonprofit that could scale up from managing a downtown site for feeding people to managing a dorm to safely house and reintegrate 500 people into our community.
This idea, the potential to add college-style dorm housing into the mix of transitional housing options, is not a replacement for either shelter beds or permanent housing. But it could offer our homeless community a more flexible and caring transition step towards rebuilding lives and reintegrating into the community on the path to permanent housing.
The End American Homelessness Act – Draft
If elected the goal will be to put on the table and drive to resolution a bold effort to resolve homelessness and get every American off the streets within two years. Here is an initial draft of how it might look:
End American Homelessness Act
Goal: Federally funded $40B construction fund to create transitional housing for 500,000 Americans currently homeless nationwide within two years.
Legislative Design Parameters:
- Directs the Army Corps of Engineers to create pre-approved architectural and engineering designs for multiple sizes/layouts of dorm style housing (defined as structures with individual rooms, but shared facilities for bathrooms/showers, meal service, etc.) with detailed procurement requirements, project plans, and construction schedules. Designed to be solid, reliable, safe, and started fast.
- Creates a program within the Department of Housing and Urban Development for State/Local entities to apply for a construction grant funding based on confirmed counts of homeless population.
- Provides funding contingent on completing construction within 18 months and facility being occupied no later than 24 months after funds disbursed – or a repayment penalty will be collected.
- Puts responsibility on local governments to identify and acquire land for construction use, but provides matching funds within limits/stipulations.
- Empowers local authorities to contract with local construction contractors and builders or leverage public agencies or options for support (ex. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
- Puts responsibility for cost overruns on state/local/private building contractors.
- Provides a mechanism to optionally purchase interior furnishings centrally via low cost bulk procurement.
- Requires localities to identify and award a site management contract to an experienced non-profit with applicable and relevant skills by start of construction.
- Authorizes the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a recommended staffing plan and training curriculum for site management as a starting point for local management.
- Requires as a condition of funding that State/Local authorities commit to providing on-site services support for benefits enrollment, employment assistance, mental health services, etc. 1 stop shop for support services.
- Federal support and funding is provided for construction. State/local authorities to own the facilities built. Operations to be done by non-profits. Oversight and inspection by Federal and State/local authorities.
This is a draft at best, a direction, not a final product. The idea is to empower local authorities (cities, states) to quickly build facilities that can get homeless people off the street into safe, secure, and supportive facilities while they are pending transition to permanent housing.
Temporary Crisis vs. Permanent Challenge
Most of our approach to homelessness is predicated on a crisis mentality or short-term thinking. We seem to assume that this is a temporary phenomena. We are not alone in this way of approaching the problem. A recent article in the New York Times covered a shelter program that has become one of the best in the city’s history, yet spends a massive effort every day to provide overnight beds to 45,000 people that are then back out on the street the next morning. The article asks if this is what ‘victory’ really looks like.
We should ask ourselves the same question. We should be honest about the answer. It is no, this is not a victory. Shuttling people in and out of overnight shelters is not a win.
We need to change our thinking and realize that this is a permanent challenge. We will always have people falling out of housing and we need a solution that is better than a shelter bed. We need to recognize that the problems that push people out of their homes are sometimes years in the making and will take years to fix. We need to have a solution that is flexible, scalable, and can meet the challenge. If we have people living in tents on the street, we have failed. If we can place people into permanent housing while providing all the support they need, that is the best solution. But if we cannot, then we need to find an alternative that leaves no one on the street and gets people help they need.
Hybrid: Housing First vs. Shelters
The program outlined above for transitional housing is a hybrid between a ‘Housing First’ approach, which is focused on getting people into permanent housing in order to provide services and a second approach of trying to build more shelter support. Our premise is that a hybrid is better if (and it is an if) permanent housing cannot be constructed fast enough and within enough certainty to get everyone off the street.
Moral Bankruptcy vs. Moral Hazard
There will be different perspectives on whether dorm-style housing is a good solution. Some will invoke ‘moral hazard’, e.g. that we are fostering dependence by giving free or subsidized housing. My response is simply this: What we have today – a large population of people living on the street – is Moral Bankruptcy. Moral Hazard would be an improvement. Given a choice between the moral bankruptcy of our current moment and the challenges of moral hazard to be reckoned with, I will always choose moral hazard if it means no one is sleeping on the street.
One line of questions might ask if a dorm-type facility can be operated in a long-term sustainable manner. Government programs come and go, will funding remain or will these structures be able to sustain themselves locally? I believe that every person going through a homeless experience also has the right to basic existing federal benefits that range from unemployment assistance to disability coverage. A dorm is a very low cost solution to housing. It should be feasible to charge residents a modest fee, in proportion to their benefits, that will help offset operational costs. The same dynamic exists when people ‘graduate’ to permanent housing. These facilities can be partly or wholly self-sustaining if operated wisely.
Like this idea? Show your support for solving our homeless crisis with innovative dormitory housing: