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Mobile homeless often knock on Portland's door for shelter, services

City offerings may spur migration from surrounding areas


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Newly homeless people tend to move to new cities at a greater rate than the overall population. But a national survey shows that when the homeless move they generally migrate to places they think they might get a job or to where they have family or friends with whom they might live.Economist Kevin Corinth knows it’s completely unlikely, but in the interest of fairness he thinks Oregon cities such as Salem, Bend and Medford should be paying Portland for taking care of their homeless men and women.

Corinth, an economist from the University of Chicago, has studied an element of homelessness that most in the housing field dismiss out of hand — the potential for the homeless to move to cities where more services are offered.

The possibility that cities that provide more housing and social services might grow their homeless populations because of new arrivals attracted by the services has long been a concern, but difficult to study, Corinth says. There’s evidence on how often the homeless move, but not much on why.

The best data comes from the 15-year-old federally sponsored National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients. According to the survey, about 9 percent of homeless people move to another city within a month of becoming homeless — a much higher migration rate than the general population. About one in five move within their first six months of homelessness.

The survey also revealed that the homeless move to where they think they might have a better opportunity to get a job, or to where they have family members to help support them. Some in the survey said they moved to cities where mass transit was more available to help them get around.

Less clear is how far the homeless migrate. The prevailing thinking among academics is that some homeless people in rural areas and small cities migrate to the largest nearby city, where more services such as subsidized health care and housing are available.

So the greatest influx of homeless people to Portland may be from other cities and towns around Oregon and Southwest Washington. In a perfect world, maybe some of those towns would reimburse Portland in some way. But Corinth says something closer to the opposite is actually ocurring. Some of those municipalities are likely making it harder for people to live on their streets, he says, by not offering adequate safety-net services and by enacting anti-camping ordinances.

“The cities often say the reason they use these policies is to get people off the street and into shelters,” Corinth says. “Another way of looking at it is to say maybe they’re using these laws in order to encourage the homeless to leave the city and migrate to a place like Portland.”

Washington, D.C., and San Francisco recently have enacted residency requirements for some of their homeless people to get services. In San Francisco, the policy specifically requires families seeking shelter beds to prove they are residents. That doesn’t mean they must have lived in San Francisco for a certain amount of time, just that they at least have completed an application for public benefits in the city.

But even that can be challenging for some homeless families, says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. Someone fired from a job who moves his or her family to San Francisco hoping for shelter might have to make numerous trips for weeks to the welfare office to complete an application, Friedenbach says. In addition, she says, undocumented immigrants won’t apply and thus some might be excluded from shelters.

City officials say the policy is driven by a need to prioritize with a long waiting list for family shelter in San Francisco. Friedenbach says there is another motivation.

“They want to be able to say people are choosing to be homeless,” she says of those who don’t establish residency.

Marc Jolin, executive director of nonprofit homeless agency JOIN, stands firmly against residency requirements. He says his outreach workers tell him that most of the homeless people who move here came from within the region. Most who came here and are homeless now thought there was something better here — often a friend or family member with whom they thought they could stay.

“They’re poor, and what they’d hoped would happen doesn’t happen and they become homeless,” Jolin says.

Corinth says residency requirements are at least worthy of consideration. They force communities with limited resources to ask if it is more or less fair to put people who have lived in a city longer toward the top of the list for housing. And Corinth, an economist to the core, adds that a residency requirement might discourage homeless people living outside Portland from moving here. In which case, some of the other cities in the area might have to take more action to help their own homeless.

The whole idea of residency requirements gets to the heart of a city’s relationship with it’s homeless, as far as Corinth is concerned.

“What it means to be a resident of a city when you don’t have a home is an interesting question,” he says.