Why Are So Many of the People Sleeping on Downtown Streets So Damaged?
One of the faith leaders who has worked closely with the most vulnerable people on the streets has a theory.
The paradox jumps out from the latest homelessness numbers released by Multnomah County: The number of people sleeping on the streets is going down, but those people report being in far greater distress.
Results of the county’s “point in time” count, released last month, found 72 percent of unsheltered homeless people report a disability — a physical handicap, mental illness or addiction.
That’s the story of “Downtown” Chris Brown — so much so he tries to make a joke out of it. Brown, 45, living on the sidewalk near Lan Su Chinese Garden, says he’s tried to file for Social Security benefits three times, but can’t make appointments.
“I can’t even put a calendar on my wall,” he quips. “I don’t have one.”
Brown says he fell off a cliff as a teenager, breaking three vertebrae and both legs: “Every step I take is a grind.”
He doesn’t have housing, and doesn’t hold out much hope of finding any soon. “I see people falling through the cracks,” he adds, “and they’ve had a chance to get comfortable doing that.”
Brown’s story fits a pattern in Portland: More people are finding shelter, but those who don’t are more distressed than ever, displaying mental illness, addiction and squalor that alarms and discomfits the rest of the city.
One of the faith leaders who has worked closely with the most vulnerable people on the streets has a theory why.
Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, says the demand on government and social services to show housing success stories inadvertently creates more drastic tales of misery for those who aren’t good bets to succeed.
“If your funding is based on success, then you’re not going to take the most fragile people,” says. “So they get left behind.”
Chapman retired June 30 after 29 years of service. During that time, she officiated at least 50 funerals for houseless people.
She says a need to show results can lead government-funded programs to take higher-functioning people off the streets first. “If I’m looking at two people,” she says, “and one is addicted and has the mind of a 12-year old, and the other is relatively together, which one am I going to put into housing if I want to show success?”
Government officials disagree, saying that some of their programs actually prioritize the most vulnerable.
“I don’t think that’s a fair characterization,” said Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “The more vulnerable someone is, the more likely they are to access our targeted permanent supportive housing resources.”
People who can’t get into housing tend to cluster in the areas close to social services — in Old Town/Chinatown, along Northwest Broadway and West Burnside Street, and in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Buckman, around St. Francis.
The parish dining hall feeds 180 people six days a week, and offers medical and other services. Nearby St. Francis Park, long a hangout for deeply fraught people, was recently razed to make way for publicly subsidized St. Francis Park Apartments’ 106 affordable units. But that hasn’t changed the landscape: The parish and its services are still ringed by dozens of tents and vehicular homes.
“We can’t, as a society, figure out how to take care of the most vulnerable people in our midst,” Chapman says.
Another center for services orbited by dozens of unsheltered homeless people is Bud Clark Commons in Old Town, which houses 130 people but also serves as a day space for dozens more — often the mentally ill and drug-addicted.
Paul Bundridge Jr., 65, sitting across the street from the Bud Clark Commons, gruffly announced July 2 he’d been “kicked out” of a program because of “talking loud, and anger, my mouth.” The diabetic Vietnam War veteran is one of the growing group of older, sicker homeless shown in the new county data. He suffers from post-traumatic stress, manic depression and serious foot problems.
He’s lost two toes, and doctors want to amputate his left foot below the ankle. He hasn’t let them, yet. He’s waiting for a subsidized apartment.
“If I was lucky, I’d be in a bed instead of on the concrete,” he said. “It’s making me suicidal. I’m definitely disabled. I’m just falling apart at my age.”
This story was first published in Willamette Week.