A “Community First” Strategy to Address Houselessness in Portland, Oregon


This “Community First” document finds its origin in the North Portland Joint Statement on Homelessness, which was endorsed by six of eleven North Portland Neighborhood Associations (Bridgeton, Arbor Lodge, Overlook, University Park, Kenton, and St. Johns) in May 2020. This document caught the attention of the Homelessness Committee of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Old Town Community Association, which together with some of the original authors of the North Portland Joint Statement on Homelessness then drafted the “Community First” document.

Although the “Community First” document was never circulated formally, it was shared for discussion and feedback. In December 2020, SNA voted to endorse the Community First Strategy and to encourage SE Uplift and other Neighborhood Associations to join in that endorsement.

Introduction (from original draft one-page summary dated 7/29/20)

In 2014, A Home for Everyone committed to achieving adequate housing for everyone in Portland and Multnomah County. In the years since, thousands of people have transitioned from houselessness into permanent housing and many more have been prevented from becoming houseless.

Despite the progress, however, the rate and number of people becoming houseless and living on the street has increased faster than the capacity of our system to provide adequate shelter and support services. The thousands of people living on the streets are at greater risk of becoming victims of crime and they often do not have access to bathrooms and other basic hygiene needs. Our houseless neighbors are subject to the traumatic and destabilizing experience of being forced to relocate, which often leads to loss of personal belongings. Relocation without an alternative place to stay does not result in people living in safer, healthier, or more humane conditions, nor does it solve any problems for the larger community.

People across Portland and Multnomah County are joining together to promote a collective vision to meet the urgent needs of our houseless neighbors in a different way that is resource-effective, supports our businesses and visitors, and fosters health, safety, and dignity for all residents–housed and unhoused. The Community First Strategy recognizes the long-term goal of permanent housing, while noting that this vision simply cannot be achieved in the near term. It presents a bold challenge for today: to provide all residents with enough safe, stable, and hygienic places to live until the ultimate goal of permanent housing for all becomes a reality.

To achieve this goal, the Community First Strategy promotes the establishment and support of a spectrum of shelter models to meet a diverse array of needs. Traditional shelter models do not work for everyone; even if they did, there is no way to build the capacity needed to house all of the thousands of people experiencing houselessness in Portland and Multnomah County. We envision a continuum of shelter models that includes both traditional and alternative models. More self-governed and managed alternative models must be created, ranging from safe and sanitary places where people can rest or camp, to tiny home or pod villages, to protected sites for those living in RVs and cars. While current project proposals already exist, we need more community-led project proposals.

These types of models need not be complicated, nor resource intensive. With dedication, coordination, and collaboration between local government, businesses, nonprofits, faith and neighborhood organizations, and the houseless community, we believe that many could be implemented in the near term, and for much less than the cost of traditional shelter.

It is unacceptable that our unhoused neighbors do not have a safe and decent place to sleep and convenient access to hygiene. We can and must do better. We hope to work together to promote our shared goal of ensuring that all residents can be safe, healthy, and live with dignity until the ideal long-term visions of A Home For Everyone and Here Together can be achieved.

We hope to work together to promote access to more immediate (if temporary), logistically feasible, community-driven, and relationship-promoting spaces while they await the outcomes of the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure/ HereTogether, and the existing permanent affordable housing resources that have years-long waitlists.

The Community First platform is based on the following principles:

  1. Compassion comes first. 
    • Policy proposals must be driven by the acknowledgement that the homeless are not “Other” but are legitimate members of our community in need of resources and support.
    • Compassion includes concern for the needs of local businesses and housed communities that also bear the burden of unsanitary and unsafe conditions arising from this crisis.
  2. Best Practices are well understood, but underfunded, blocked or ignored. There are any number of experienced, passionate people who are devoted to solving this crisis. Our intent is to draw on their expertise, not hinder it. The work of organizations such as Oregon Harbor of Hope, Hygiene 4 All, Right to Dream, and Street Roots should provide guiding principles for implementation.
    • The “Housing First” strategy has diverted most funding to long-term goals, leaving short-term solutions tragically underfunded. This policy must change.
    • There is an antipathy between the homeless community, neighborhood associations and the city that impedes progress. This antipathy must and can be undone through recognition that our goals are more closely aligned than people readily admit.
  3. Organic, unsupported camps are neither compassionate nor best practice. 
    • Sanitation, security and access to services are unreliable at best.
    • Lack of services leads to desperation which leads to crimes of desperation against the unwilling host community.
    • Poor sanitation and service, and a regular pattern of petty crime creates an antipathy between campers and unwilling host neighborhoods and businesses.
    • Camp residents are vulnerable to predatory crime such as drug dealing, rape and human trafficking.
    • Unsanctioned camps are subject to destructive sweeps, which destroy communities and personal property, and set people back in their struggle for security and dignity.
  4. Community First means that the bonds and responsibilities between all of the people in the community must be called into action to address the shelter crisis in Portland. This requires  the creation of policies that build collaboration and mutual respect for and between:
    • The social structures that form within homeless communities.
    • The needs of the host neighborhoods and business communities.
    • The advocacy groups, faith communities and government agencies that provide passionate services to the unsheltered.
  5. Host Communities have a vital role to play. To adequately address the current need, we need to create livable situations for as many as 5000 individuals, perhaps more. The scale of the need can never be met without cooperation from the local communities asked to accept these facilities. Neighborhood Associations (NAs), Business Associations (BAs) and other civic organizations can provide that link between the government, the facilities, and the local host communities.
    • Organized camps are not a charitable project. Communities benefit by participating in functional ways in establishing organized camps within their boundaries.
      1. Improved sanitation
      2. Improved security
      3. Improved relations with camp residents
      4. Increased civic involvement
    • Funding – NAs are not significant sources of revenue of themselves, but they provide access to volunteer hours for grant writing and other fundraising efforts.
    • Service – A cooperative relationship between camps and host communities opens the door for direct service between neighbors inside and outside the camps. This creates improved opportunities for re-entry into broader society for those in the homeless community who are able to do so.
    • Dignity – Considerate relationships with your neighbors is a fundamental human need. The give-and-take of a functional respect between camps and host communities creates an opportunity for all parties to feel heard and seen.
  6. The Host Communities have expectations too. Rebuilding a more just and equitable society is its own reward, but we have to have clear goals in mind for what that society should look like. So long as we have a need for camps:
    • Host communities need to have a voice in the location of camps within their boundaries.
    • Camps and host communities need to work together to maintain relations.
    • Streets, parks, bike paths and waterways should be clean, safe and available for use by all.
    • Predatory crime should not be tolerated.

A Community First approach will require significant public investment in education, mental health, job development and training, treatment of addiction, and life skills coaching, but public dollars alone are not sufficient. Private investment will also be necessary to launch a this strategy.

The Community First Action Plan

The City, the County and other public entities own numerous properties where clean, safe and organized communities can be installed. These can have the sanitary conditions that are necessary to maintain health, and be governed to provide structure, security and dignity  to its residents. The city has shown that this is possible with the recent establishment of three sites to address the COVID crisis. Other organized facilities, such as the Right to Dream Too rest stop, present successful models. We suggest that many more of these short term facilities are immediately necessary across the city.

Community First calls for the immediate redirection of resources from the long-term “Housing First” policy into a multi-tiered strategy with short, medium and long-term components, as well as core causes of homelessness such as:

  1. Systemic social injustice.
  2. Inadequate mental health support and drug addiction treatment programs.
  3. Rising housing costs combined with wage stagnation.

Community First proposes that neighborhood associations (NAs) provide a key element to assemble the public will needed to create change. NAs can be engaged to participate in this process through negotiation to:

  1. Establish a sufficient number of organized temporary camps and other facilities throughout the city to adequately address the scale of the crisis. These facilities should:
    1. Be sited through collaborative discussion between policymakers, representatives of the homeless community, business, faith and non-profit organizations, and host communities.
    2. Provide sanitation, security and access to support services.
    3. Have different personalities to serve different needs, i.e. families, vehicular camps, gender groups, or ethnic concerns.
    4. Speak the voice of their community through self- or supported- governance.
    5. Be able to negotiate with host NAs for mutual benefit, and to build respect and shared community.
    6. Have the support of the host NA and maintain that through a Good Neighbor Agreement or other mechanism.
  2. Eliminate unsupported camping in the streets, parks, paths and waterways once organized alternative sites are available. Unsupported camping creates public health risk as well as antipathy between diverse communities. A successful program should draw the unhoused into organized, supportive communities, reducing and eventually eliminating unsafe and unsanctioned camps.

There must be programs for short, medium and long term solutions.

  1. Short-term:
    1. Increase the availability of housing in supportive motels/hotels for vulnerable populations – especially families with children and the sick.
    2. Additional funding for housing voucher programs.
    3. Expedite permitting for the private effort to bring the Bybee Lakes Hope Center into prompt service for mental health programs.
    4. Aggressively create additional secure, supported locations for camping, with immediate substantial increase in short-term support for residents, including:
      • portable toilets
      • hand washing stations
      • regular garbage pick-up
      • masks for COVID-19
      • hand sanitizers/wipes
  2. Medium-term:
    1. The establishment of multiple safe, supported semi-permanent villages throughout the city, such as Dignity Village and Kenton Women’s Village, will serve our overall community. These supported villages should be structure-based (i.e. tiny homes) but also accommodate tent as well as car/RV camping. In addition to the basic sanitation needs above, these camps should provide:
      • More substantial sanitation such as showers and laundry facilities.
      • Direct access to public transportation.
      • Managed self-governance.
      • Access to social services, including referrals to drug and alcohol counseling, employment issues, physical and mental health services, and straightforward access to school for children within the community.
      • A place for every person who needs one.
      • Transition services to permanent housing for all residents.
  3. Long-term:
    1. Programs to bring the housing supply into alignment with the city’s needs should include:
      • Development of additional affordable and mixed-income housing.
      • Taxation on unoccupied dwelling units. Currently unoccupied units are a tax write-off because they are seen as an expense burden on owners. Taxing unoccupied units would encourage owners to set their rental rates in line with market realities.

Supporting Documents:

Austin TX Community First
Shelter-to Home continuum project BPS
R2DToo Keith Jones data