Why are people homeless?

February 13th, 2023

Impact NW hears this question a lot. With a mission to prevent homelessness, we work every day with people at the edge of losing their housing or, worse, people that already have. 

So it’s common that we get the question. And we’ve dedicated much time and effort to understanding it and answering it. Homelessness, in our experience, generates from our flawed housing market. Yes, behavioral health and substance abuse fuel the issue. But they aren’t root causes (more on that in a bit).

Of late, however, I am wondering if this debate is worth the focus. I’m moved by new evidence unearthed by our friends at the Coalition of Communities of Color. They recently conducted a public survey to gauge what’s on hearts and minds about housing and homelessness. The results countered common notions. Conducted this past fall, the survey revealed, for example, that people don’t support sweeps.

Looking deeper, another promising trend emerged. While people surveyed defaulted to substance abuse and behavioral health as causes of homelessness, they supported housing first strategies and understand that recovery is more successful inside than in a tent. 

This is a big deal. Housing first – which Impact NW champions in its Homelessness Prevention Strategy –  contends that moving people from outside directly into housing is a proven best practice. It’s more humane, cost-effective and based on evidence. 

Not everyone agrees. Critics ask why the strategy hasn’t worked in Portland. It hasn’t worked because we haven’t invested in it. Rather, our regional strategy has been to invest in shelter and, of late, mass encampments.

For sure, the status quo is unacceptable. We agree 100% that we must provide a solution to what is happening on the streets. 

The solution, as new Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson points out, is housing. “The goal of this model is to connect people directly to housing and stop the shuffle of moving people from one location to another as they’re living outside,” Chair Vega Pederson said on Feb. 3 in announcing new investments in housing first strategies.

The solution has support from Portlanders, according to the recent survey, and gets to the root of the problem. As the chair points out, our region has a lower poverty rate than Detroit. We have lower rates of addiction than West Virginia. But we have far higher rates of homelessness than both because we have a severe shortage of affordable housing.

“The problem on our streets stems from that fact, and that fact alone. And we should all

understand this: the lack of housing impacts people at all income levels. So our funding

models for this will benefit not only those living unsheltered, not only renters, not only

homeowners, but everyone in our region,” Chair Vega Pederson said.

Totally agree.

Let’s move the conversation to what really matters and has the support of our neighbors. Let’s get behind the efforts to move people into housing, with supportive services, that will end this crisis. We have the available units. We have funding for services such as long-term rent assistance. Let’s focus here so one day we won’t have to ask: Why are people homeless?

Andy Nelson

Executive Director