By Eileen Brady of Portland, Oregon. Eileen is a candidate for Mayor of Portland. Learn more at EileenForMayor.com.
This week, as we gather with our families and loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving, we must remember that over 2,700 of our neighbors in Portland/Multnomah County will spend the holiday without a home.
Even more disturbing are the 751 children that are homeless. The number of homeless families with children has increased by 35% in just two short years! Tomorrow, most of us will worry about eating too much turkey and stuffing. But hundreds of children will be worried about where they will sleep. That is simply unacceptable in a great city like Portland. We have to put an end to it now.
Job creation is my number one priority, but some of our citizens can’t hold down a job because they are in need of something more basic – a roof over their head. Parents can’t find work when they are busy trying to make sure their children stay warm.
When it comes to homelessness, there are several steps we must take, including job creation and increased funding for mental health services.
But today, I want us to focus on a concrete, foundational problem we must solve: moving our children out of homelessness. As Portland's next Mayor, I will get to work on Day One to identify every homeless family with children and get a permanent roof over their heads.
As Mayor, I will move hundreds of children out of homelessness during my time in office. This is a tangible, achievable goal. And we know it will be an ongoing battle as the homeless population is transient and ever changing. By focusing on families with children we can get ahead of the curve.
As taxpayers, the best investments we can make are in childhood programs focusing on housing, education and health. By investing early in our kids, we can give them the greatest chance for success in life and reduce the demand and costs of city services in the long run. I was privileged to help develop a similar strategy when, in 2007, Governor Kulongoski asked me to serve as a Vice Chair of the Oregon Health Fund Board. He tasked us with the job of creating a plan to expand health benefits to the thousands of Oregon children who were slipping through the cracks. Today, as the result of the work we did on that Board and the Legislature’s commitment, we now provide health insurance to an additional 94,000 kids. Now almost 95% of Oregon children have health care coverage.
When it comes to child homelessness, we can make the same kind of progress in Portland. Here are the specific steps we will take to achieve this goal:
Speed up and prioritize the city's plans to build 600 new affordable housing units designated for homeless families. We will have to build a public private partnership to make this happen.
Create an outreach team charged specifically with identifying every homeless family with children and guiding them into the permanent housing system. We know that too many families are using temporary shelters. This team will also be responsible for following up with families once they have housing to assist them with other services like workforce training or drug and alcohol treatment. We will seek grant funding to launch this team.
Stabilize families with transitional rent assistance.
Ensure a strong network of providers exists to help homeless families find and keep meaningful work that pays a living wage.
Most importantly, we have to get serious about building a vibrant local economy that creates a strong tax base that can support core city and county services. Just as I have done throughout my career, we have to break through the myth in Portland that says we can't have a progressive city and a vibrant local economy. To me, this is about achieving true economic justice in our city.
Can we really claim to be a livable, progressive city when we have thousands of homeless families on our streets, including 751 children? A respected Portland homeless advocate recently told me that despite the progress that is being made he thinks we have “compassion fatigue.”
We have to continue to muster our strength and compassion to focus on our children and get them off the streets. Great cities take care of their most vulnerable citizens. Portland can and should be a great city.
Occupy Portland and its supporters have reminded us of the economic disparities that have been created in our country and in our city. I’m ready to get to work to bring good jobs back to our city and rebuild a thriving middleclass. Despite all the challenges we face, I still believe in the power of local people to solve our problems and build a thriving economy in our region. Let’s put that power to work to end homelessness for children and to create stability for our most vulnerable families.
Best wishes for a peaceful and joyful Thanksgiving.