Oregon candidates for governor: What would they do immediately to address homelessness?

By Hillary Borrud | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Oregon candidates for governor this year are talking a lot about how they would tackle the state’s homelessness crisis, with good reason: Voters have been telling pollsters that homelessness is their top concern.

This week, new data revealed that the number of people living unsheltered in Portland alone increased roughly 50% since January 2019. Portland-area governments and nonprofits reported progress in getting people into housing and adding shelter beds since a new tax to raise money for homeless services took effect in mid-2021.

Still, most of the people living on the street who were surveyed by The Oregonian/OregonLive in late 2021 said they had never been approached by a housing outreach worker. And of those who were contacted by workers, most said they never heard from the person again.

Gov. Kate Brown, a highly unpopular Democrat who cannot run again due to term limits, never made it a top priority to work with local governments to get large numbers of Oregonians off the streets and into housing even before the pandemic, despite saying in 2016 that she was “just stunned by the number of people living in tents in Portland.”

While her Republican opponent in 2018, Knute Buehler, released a detailed seven-point plan to reduce homelessness by increasing mental health treatment, rental assistance, shelters and affordable housing, Brown had yet to issue her own proposal after three years in office. She ultimately issued a strategy focused on ending children’s and veteran homelessness; lawmakers approved her $10.5 million pilot project aimed at housing families with children, then repealed it in an August 2020 special session.

Perhaps as a result of leaders’ real or perceived inaction, Oregon voters told pollsters that political leadership is also among their top concerns this year.

One of the candidates running for governor this year has personal experience with homelessness. Jessica Gomez, a Republican from Medford who is CEO of the small microelectronics manufacturer Rogue Valley Microdevices, spent part of a year in her teens living in a car, on the streets and in parks.

The Oregonian/OregonLive asked the two leading Democrats, six Republican candidates with significant fundraising and some name recognition in polling, and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson how they would respond to the problem if elected governor. Johnson, a longtime former Democrat, is expected to appear on ballots in November. Some responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What would you do in your first 100 days as governor to tackle Oregon’s homelessness crisis?

DEMOCRATS

Tobias Read: We need housing for every person experiencing homelessness. That means speeding up everything from acquiring motels to building more safe rest villages. We also need to cut through zoning bureaucracy to aggressively address this shortfall in housing. This is no time for red tape. We need to put more money and urgency into rebuilding our mental health care system and getting more resources into treating drug and alcohol dependency. Business owners all over the state want to help people who are experiencing homelessness. But they’ve also been harassed repeatedly on the way to work. They’ve seen violent confrontations. Their customers don’t feel safe and neither do their workers.

Tina Kotek: We have thousands of Oregonians living on the street. It’s unacceptable. As governor, I will take immediate action: assemble a special emergency management team to work directly with local government to address the urgent needs of our unhoused neighbors and cut through bureaucratic red tape, train a workforce of housing navigators whose sole job is to get our neighbors stable through housing and social services, and initiate long-term solutions to address the severe lack of housing in Oregon by issuing an executive order on day one to create a 10-year plan to build enough homes to meet our needs.

REPUBLICANS

Bob Tiernan: Immediately take action to implement a short-term solution that gets the homeless, addicts and others who are staying on our streets, sidewalks, parks, roadways, under overpasses and bridges off the streets. Eliminate the tents, camping conditions and garbage and move homeless into sanitary temporary shelters. Create a special task force to determine the long-term action plan with a set timeline and outcomes to permanently resolve the problem.

Stan Pulliam: I’m the only candidate with a plan. I will fix the homeless crisis as quickly as President Trump fixed the border and as quickly as President Biden screwed it up. It’s an issue of leadership and setting the tone. I would authorize (the state environmental and transportation agencies) to recognize areas needing sweeps for safety issues and relocate them to a Port of Portland facility patrolled by Port Police. Anyone committing crimes will be taken to jail. We’ll utilize National Guard if needed. If a criminal lifestyle becomes too much of a hassle in Oregon, they will go somewhere else.

Bud Pierce: My life experience has prepared me to be governor and tackle some of our state’s biggest problems. I have already spent a great deal of time visiting camps, listening to experts and studying successful models for caring for unsheltered individuals. Even before I take office, I will begin an intensive listening tour that considers our metropolitan and rural areas. This is not a “one size fits all” problem, and solutions will be unique to each region. I will strongly consider enacting a public health crisis for the unsheltered in our state — we cannot allow bureaucracy to slow down progress.

Jessica Gomez: According to a 2017 report from The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers over $35,000 annually to leave them unsheltered. I propose an “assisted living” model with multiple levels of care and supervision, similar to what we have for senior citizens. Diagnosis and treatment for addiction and mental illness would be mandatory. Oregon currently ranks near the bottom for available treatment programs. I will outlaw camping on our streets and in our parks once we have the infrastructure to provide shelter and treatment. Allowing people to live on the streets without hope is not compassionate.

Christine Drazan: Government spending has not solved the crisis in our streets, and out-of-touch bureaucrats and enabling politicians have only made things worse. My administration will clear bureaucratic hurdles and address the root causes of the crisis – addiction, mental health and affordability. We need a new mindset that refuses to accept humans sleeping on the sidewalk as the norm. I will work with our nonprofits, the faith community and local governments to connect people with services while making it clear that local governments are expected to use their authority to enforce local ordinances and maintain community safety.

Bridget Barton: Solving crime, homelessness and substance abuse is complex, but here are two key pieces: First, turn the “housing first” model around completely. Design a statewide shelter database so we are able to clear the streets legally, create large low-barrier shelters and reallocate most “housing” funds to substance abuse and mental health treatment. Second, gather law enforcement, treatment providers and parent groups across the state to refer Measure 110, which legalized hard drugs, back to voters for repeal. This policy draws cartels, crime, drug users and homeless people to our state, and it’s killing our kids through increasingly common fentanyl overdoses.

UNAFFILIATED

Betsy Johnson: I would move immediately to create enough emergency shelters to replace the dangers of the streets with security and safety. People living inhumanely on the streets while we await $400,000 per door permanent housing doesn’t work. Oregonians are dying. We have the resources; what we lack is leadership. As governor, I will take the best ideas from both parties: Democrats are right, we need social services and housing. But Republicans are also right, we need personal responsibility and no more tent cities. Long term, we need an integrated response that links public safety, drug treatment and mental health services.

— Hillary Borrud