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Interview with Sally Erickson: Ending Homelessness

I interviewed Sally Erickson who is the manager of Portland, Oregon’s Ending Homelessness Initiative

What does the Initiative do?
5 years ago the city and county launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness, our bureau (Portland Housing Bureau) funds a number of non-profits that are working to end homelessness in the community. We work to move people from the streets into housing, with street outreach, housing for people that are recovering from addictions or people with mental health issues, and with rent assistance and supportive service programs.

What is your job in the Initiative?

I write grants and oversee contracts with providers and non-profits. I work in planning with the organizations in the community on strategies that are going to end homelessness as quickly as possible. We’re working on this 10-year plan that goes through 2015, but in the meantime we have people on the streets, so our bureau also funds a number of emergency shelters and short-term housing so that people can get off the street quickly.

Where do you get most of your funding?
About half is city general funds and about half are federal funds and federal grant monies.

Does your program just place people in housing or do you do other things like help find them work?

It depends on the person. We fund providers that work with adults, people with kids, people with disabilities and mental illnesses, seniors etc. For example one organization that we work with called Northwest Pilot Project works only with people that are ages 55 and older. They do outreach to people that are outside or in shelters, many of whom have social security, but for various reasons they may not be organized enough, they may have mental health issues, they may have cognitive issues and they need help to negotiate how to get back into housing again. Or they might need rent assistance because their income is so little that they can’t afford rent. There are some federal rent assistance programs like section 8, but they may be on the waiting list for it. So NPP will work with seniors and help them to move into housing, and if the seniors can still work than the organization can help them connect with employment programs.

A lot of people who experience homelessness are simply having a short term economic crises and they don’t have any particular needs that are different from people who are low-income and in housing. With a little bit of rent assistance they can get back into housing and they’ll never experience homelessness again. For a smaller percentage of people that experience homelessness there are other issues that are going on; mental illness issues or addictions or both that’s making it hard for them to get organized enough to get off the street.

homeless man with sign
What are the main causes of homelessness? What are the demographics, who make up the homeless populations?
Its depends on the community. Here in Portland in a years time over half the people who experience homelessness are in families with kids. Again the majority of the people are having an economic crisis; someone lost a job, someone is having a major health crisis and couldn’t afford the bills and lost their housing. The main cause of homelessness like we see it today is lack of affordable housing. There’s been a huge shift that began about 25 years ago when the federal government was cutting funds to the affordable housing programs. If you look at the US Department of Housing and Development’s budget over the last 25 years, today it’s a fraction of what it was 25 years ago, but now we have even more people in need. The government has reduced funding for programs that serve low-income people, so we have more people living in poverty today than we did 25 years ago.

When I was growing up there were not families with children or seniors or people with disabilities living on the streets, that’s a relatively new phenomenon in US history, it’s just been around for about 25 years. If we had enough affordable housing and assistance for people that needed it, we wouldn’t have people on the streets. The existing safety net would be enough to help people who had some kind of a temporary housing crisis. Now we don’t have enough affordable housing, (there’s an estimated shortcoming of about 20,000 units of affordable housing in the Portland area) and until we have enough housing there’s going be people on the streets. It used to be that you could work a minimum-wage job and afford an apartment, but you really can’t do that anymore if you’re trying to support a family as well.

Why is it important to end homelessness?
I believe that everbody deserves a home. I’ve never experienced homelessness myself, but I’ve spent a lot of time with people that are living outside and it’s awful. Almost every mentally ill homeless woman has been sexually assaulted in the street. As a fellow human being I don’t believe that anyone should have to live on the streets. And it’s preventable, if 25 years ago we didn’t have homelessness like this, it doesn’t need to be this way now. There’s a lot that we can do with local funds and we need the federal government to step up as well.

As a financial reason, it’s actually just as expensive if not more expensive for people to live on the streets vs. paying for their rent and services. There are people that cost our community hundreds of thousands of dollars per year who are suffering from disease or illness. They’re on the street and they call an ambulance, the ambulance takes them to the ER where they get treated and discharged back to the street where the conditions are such that they can’t heal and so they end up back in health services. You can imagine how the expenses rack up, so the community is paying one way or the other. It makes more economic sense to prevent crises like this. There’s the moral reason and then there’s the economic reason. For families with kids and for young people homelessness is terrible. The long term trauma that it inflicts on kids affects them for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, most of the general public never see the families with kids unless they’re volunteering at a shelter.

From your perspective how does homelessness affect someone’s morale? It must be hard for these people and the families with kids to go through all of this and then still be out there looking for jobs.

It really affects their self worth, a homeless parent’s self worth is terrible. They’re struggling to look like they have it together to their kids but they’re feeling awful and they’re depressed and it’s very traumatic for anyone to be homeless. Lack of self worth contributes to violence and addictions and mental health conditions. I’ve seen people who were mentally ill who got off the street into housing and their mental health symptoms improved almost immediately. To have a door they can close, to be able to be quiet, get a good nights sleep, eat a healthy meal or to have privacy and dignity… It’s really remarkable to see the change in people who have been homeless for a long time when they get off the street.

What are the main misperceptions about homelessness?
The tip of the iceberg are the people that you see panhandling on the street. The people that you don’t see are the people who are out struggling and looking for employment or looking for a place to live, or they’re in families with kids and they’re sleeping in their car somewhere. You very rarely actually see a family with kids out on the streets.

Addiction is a huge problem. Can you imagine the hopelessness of someone who has no job, no place to live, no support network and they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol? Unless they have insurance they’ll have a hard time if they decide to get off their addiction and if they want to get into a detox program. If you’re someone with means it’s easy. But for people without means who want to quit, the waiting list to get into a detox bed can take weeks.

So that’s a big misperception is that people make the choice. There are people who may look able-bodied but there’s usually a lot more going on than what’s visible to a casual passerby. I’ve worked in a lot of shelters and outreach programs and I’ve had long conversations with about 2000 homeless people. I’ve never once met anyone that I thought was choosing to be out there. A real common perception is that people choose it because it’s easy or great. It’s horrible to be homeless; people yell at you, they spit at you, people get assaulted all the time, women get sexually assaulted, men get sexually assaulted, you have a lack of sleep, you get awakened by police who tell you to move on, it’s cold, it’s raining or snowing.

Last year we did a health-related survey of 650 people who were sleeping outside and found that half of the people we talked to were medically vulnerable. They had serious health problems like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, missing fingers and toes from frostbite. It was really very shocking. You may not see all there is to see just looking at someone.

If people are interested in helping what can they do?

There’s lots someone can do. The first thing that people can do is get involved in their community. Here in Portland people can go on our website or look at the Rose City Resource Guide which lists all the non-profits that are working with homelessness. Elsewhere, if you don’t have money to donate, volunteer. There are so many great non-profits. You can volunteer at a local food bank or shelter. Its best to find out what’s going on in your own neighborhood.

When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
My mom died the day I was born and it really affected me. I felt that I had to do something important with my life because my mom died in my birth. I’ve wanted to be of service since I was a little kid. I was always very sensitive to people who were hurting and I wanted to do something. I volunteered for non-profits from a pretty young age.

In college I studied Native American art but I was volunteering in homeless programs. My friends finally said, “Why don’t you just do that?” and being a social worker paid about 5 cents more per hour than working in museums, so I got my Masters in social work. While I was in school I met someone who was working in a shelter and I ended up taking a job with them. I couldn’t believe it, it just totally blew my mind the first time I started working at this shelter. I couldn’t believe that in America people were living like this. I’ve been working in the field ever since. I’ll probably always be doing some kind of social work. I enjoy the work that I do, but I can also write and speak and I like to do community organizing and planning. I think I’ll stay in this field until we’ve ended homelessness, which will hopefully be soon.

Where do you want to be in 20, 30 or 50 years from now?

I hope that homelessness has ended in the next decade. The next thing that I’m drawn to working with is corrections. We have more people in jail or prison per capita in the US than any other country in the world and I find that astonishing. I find the statistics astonishing on the number of people incarcerated that are people of color, or the number of people who are from poverty or who are mentally ill or abused. I’m very interested in working in that field. I mean, you’ve got a lot of people in there for a long time, why not take the opportunity to allow them to get their GED, get their education, learn some job skills? There’s this punitive attitude in America that people should just get locked up to suffer. The truth is that we’re spending billions to keep them there and they’re going to get out someday and they’re coming back to their communities. So are we just going to allow them to live on the streets or live without means? We could do so much better.

If you could make a bumper sticker what would it say? What’s your message?
It’s all about love and relationships. Try to be a love transmitter. Open your heart and your mind, send positive energy and love out into the world and be present enough to do that in your everyday interactions. Be kind to the person that’s serving your coffee or fixing your desk. If we could all be present and aware in our interactions I think the world would be a much better place. And I think that if everyone in the world had a pedicure there would be no more wars!

National Alliance to End Homelessness
Feeding America
No Where to Lay His Head

homeless family

According to various national statistics, In the US as many as 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year and about 842,000 people in any given week.

40% are families with children—the fastest growing segment.
41% are single males.
14% are single females.
5% are minors unaccompanied by adults.
1.37 million (or 39%) of the total homeless population are children under the age of 18

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