Understanding Homelessness

What’s causing homelessness in Oregon?

Leading Cause

Affordable Housing Crisis

While several complex factors contribute to the homelessness and health crisis we see today, the leading cause is a lack of affordable housing. As national and local studies make clear, the math is simple:
As housing becomes less affordable, homelessness increases.

Second Key Cause

Construction Deficit

For decades, housing construction in Oregon has lagged behind population growth. As a result, the availability of affordable housing is significantly low, with an estimated deficit of nearly 98,000 homes.

This often leaves low-income households in Oregon struggling to find and retain housing.

small housing community

Third Key Cause

Rent Outpacing Income

With rising housing costs, many households are forced to choose between keeping their housing and covering essential needs like: food, clothing, childcare, etc. For households with fixed incomes or disabilities, many are just one emergency away from falling into homelessness.

In Multnomah County, over 21,000 people rely on federal disability benefits, which currently only cover half the cost of a one-bedroom apartment, compared to covering the average full rent in 2010.

Person with dog on the floor of a shelter

Other Contributing Factors

In addition to the key causes listed above, there stand a range of other contributing factors to homelessness throughout Multnomah County such as: system racism, inflation, federal disinvestment in housing and social services, and lack of and access to affordable healthcare.

Particularly in Oregon, housing costs are rising faster than wages, with a 40% increase in the fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment (over $1,600) over five years; a 10% increase in rent leads to a 13.6% increase in homelessness. While behavioral health and substance use are also a challenge amongst some unsheltered homeless people, the common factor continues to be a lack of safe and affordable housing.

A Major Contributing Factor

System Racism

For centuries, racist housing practices and policies have displaced, segregated and excluded Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). People of color continue to be impacted. The percentage of homeless Portlanders who are African American is four times larger than African Americans’ share of the Portland population overall. Similarly, the percentage of homeless Portlanders who are American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander is five times larger.

Image of a diverse group of women.

A Recent Contributing Factor

COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every community around the globe, magnifying financial challenges and adding to housing instability, particularly for marginalized communities. In 2020 alone, more than 580,000 people applied for unemployment benefits, a 600% increase from 2019.*

In the 2022 Point in Time Count, more than 500 people in Multnomah County said the pandemic directly contributed to their homelessness, a number that equates to roughly half the overall increase in reported homelessness from 2019 – 2022.**

Image of a person holding there dog and sitting on top of a cot in a cooling shelter.

Responding with Strategic Solutions

Commitment to Equity

While homelessness impacts many Oregonians, it disproportionately affects BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ communities, people with disabilities, and lower-income households. In response, the JOHS is committing to strategic solutions that address the key issues below.

Addressing System Racism

The JOHS is committed to advancing racial equity first through the recognition of systemic racism and discriminatory policies within the housing system (e.g.- red lining) that hindered BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ communities and secondly by reducing these disparities by serving these communities at much higher rates.

Additionally, these communities also face higher risk of homelessness due to employment biases and social stigma, which contribute to the challenge of securing safe and stable housing.

Rising Homelessness for People with Disabilities

People with disabilities like QTBIPOC communities also face similar challenges in the housing and job market. In particular, some people may require supportive services, like in-home care, which are costly and not always covered by insurance. Additionally, the region has seen an increase in chronic homelessness (people with disabling conditions who experience long-term homelessness). This is a primary focus of new regional funding from the SHS measure.

Housing Challenges

Due to rising rents, people with fixed incomes or low-wage jobs, in combination with BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ identities, have a more difficult time affording rental housing or saving money for a down payment on a house to be able to secure a mortgage. As a result, these folks typically turn to shelters or end up living on the streets.

A Two-Pronged Solution

Permanent Housing & Temporary Shelter

There is no linear path when it comes to getting someone out of homelessness; more so, each household has different needs and
is at a different point in their journey of escaping homelessness.

In response, the JOHS offers a two-pronged approach: emergency shelters for one’s immediate needs and long-lasting solutions with affordable, permanent housing.

Adding more than 1,000 shelter beds in recent years, the JOHS has developed new 24/7 shelter models: motels, villages, safe parking sites that offer improved amenities and services, welcoming pets and partners.

However, shelter alone doesn’t reduce a community’s level of homelessness. Without addressing root causes like a lack of affordable housing and support systems, new shelters will simply fill up and people will continue to live on the street.

Woman with dog in shelter

Five Myths About Homelessness

Myth #1

People choose to live on the street / be homeless.

In every survey of houseless people throughout Multnomah County, many say they do not want to be living on the streets.

The reality is that affordable housing is harder to find, with rents outpacing income over the past several years. Racism also continues to be a contributing factor with BIPOC communities facing greater barriers to securing stable housing and increased risk of exiting into homelessness.

Myth #2

Local city and county governments do nothing to address this crisis.

Since the JOHS launched in 2016, thousands of people have moved into housing each year, including many directly from the street. Shelter capacity has increased from 650 beds in 2015 to nearly 2,000 beds, motel rooms and sleeping units in 2022. Street outreach and navigation capacity has also doubled.

Since 2021, Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties have been working together through the Supportive Housing Services Measure, expanding permanent supportive housing, rent assistance, shelter, outreach, hygiene services and trash pickup.

Myth #3

Portland’s homeless crisis is more severe than anywhere else in the nation.

Homelessness is national. Los Angeles County has close to 20 percent of the total unsheltered population in the U.S.

Half of the nation’s houseless population lives in five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Washington. Portland ranks 24th for rate of homelessness among cities with over 100,000 people, according to federal statistics.

Cities with large populations of people experiencing homelessness have something in common: Housing that costs too much for people with low or fixed incomes.

Myth #4

Homeless people drive up the crime rate.

Homeless people are overwhelmingly the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators.

In one recent example, an 80-year-old woman who was sleeping on the street was kicked in the head by unknown perpetrators who drove up in a truck, committed the assault, then drove away. There is little recourse for this woman and many others who have been the victims of violence and assault.

Myth #5

Homeless encampments are a leading source of trash in the community.

The amount of trash produced by unhoused people is simply more visible because it isn’t picked up each week with residential collection services. Housed people also dump trash in camps.

Metro’s RID patrol, which clears roughly 88 tons of waste per month, found that about 54% comes from residential sources, with less than 25 percent coming from camps. Since the Supportive Housing Services Measure passed, the JOHS has launched employment programs with community partners to help clean up trash.