As we enter the new year and cold weather realities, we want to remind ourselves what works to build a community where everyone has a safe, affordable place to call home. We know that an organized and empathetic social service system and expanded housing options are the path toward stable housing for all. In the last decade, our region voted ‘yes’ to this strategy by investing regional taxes into the construction of affordable housing, along with the essential services to support tenants in their housing. For this local funding to be administered with improved expediency and care – we can look to other cities forging the path for addressing homelessness through their collective housing strategies.

Ron is a resident at the Hattie Redmond Apartments. Construction was funded by the 2018 Housing Bond and Services by the 2020 Supportive Housing Services Measure. The Hattie provides supportive housing for 60 senior households in North Portland.

According to HUD’s annual report – homelessness grew 12% nationally in 2023 – the highest increase recorded since the agency began tracking in 2007. Despite this, in the last two years, Minneapolis has reduced its chronically homeless population by 36%, while Houston saw a 17% reduction in 2022. Houston and Minneapolis have reduced chronic homelessness by investing public funding into coordinated systems that make housing coupled with support the top priority.

Houston’s work prioritizes access to housing, which is seen in their approach to encampments. If the city removes an encampment, the removal is performed after weeks of street outreach and planning so the city can ensure those who are being displaced have an opportunity to access housing. Since 2021, Houston has decommissioned more than 90 encampments, home to 600 individuals, with 90% of them going into housing. Without adequate systems for transitioning folks into housing with the services they need, our region will continue to waste precious resources enforcing camping bans without addressing an individual’s actual needs.

Across the ocean, European countries have seen even greater success due to a more robust commitment to Housing First policies than we have seen in the United States. Our European neighbors are a shining example of what housing, along with sufficient support can accomplish. In 2022, the largest urban area in Finland, Helsinki, had just 896 people experiencing homelessness – the majority of whom were able to stay with friends or family and were not living outside or in temporary shelters. This small homeless population is due to a common understanding among leaders and taxpayers that housing is a human right and that social support is necessary for humans to heal and stabilize. Further, aggressive policies to ensure affordability are the norm. In Helsinki, there are 60,000 units of social housing with guaranteed affordability. The city also upholds commitments to continue social housing production year over year, with strict housing laws to limit social segregation.

Finland’s robust social housing has resulted in a continued reduction in the total number of people experiencing homelessness since the 1980s. (See Video)

Quality staff to meet the supportive services needs of people exiting long-term homelessness is essential. Housing First practices acknowledge that people need a stable private space to rest before they begin to address other factors such as addiction or health struggles. Housing, along with substantial support from social service workers are the key ingredients in helping someone who has experienced long periods of homelessness become stable in housing. 

Good policy invests in systems change to support those most impacted. For policies to be successful in their implementation, they must foster an integrated network of partners with a common goal. In the new year, Welcome Home Coalition has set its sights on helping facilitate more aligned partnerships across government and nonprofits to uplift policies that place what we know works. Together, let’s create a region where everyone can access a safe, affordable place to call home.