Susie Osby Has the Floor

Local group experiences Portland’s creative and collaborative approach to end homelessness

Susie Osby Has the Floor

While reading studies and listening to experts can be helpful, sometimes you just have to go and see the challenges and solutions of another city in person.  Recently Susie Osby of Polk County Health Services and Continuum of Care Board Member, and a group of seven other Des Moines area leaders went to Portland, Oregon to see firsthand how the community is working to end homelessness and provide affordable housing.  It was a trip filled with insights, lessons and a couple surprises.

We asked Susie a few questions related to their Feb. 4-6 trip. Others in the group included Chris Johansen, City of Des Moines and Continuum of Care Committee Member; Karen Walters Crammond, Polk County Health Services; Annie Uetz, Polk County Health Services; Angela Connolly, Polk County Supervisor, Polk County Housing Trust Fund Board Member and Housing Coordinating Council Member; Bob Brownell, Polk County Supervisor and Co-Chair of the Homeless Coordinating Council; Angie Dethlefs-Trettin, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and Polk County Continuum of Care Committee Member; and Elisabeth Buck, United Way of Central Iowa and Polk County Continuum of Care Board Member.  

Side note: In discussing “next steps” for Polk County, we learned about a new and important job that was recently posted.  The job description is at the end of this column.

Q: Why Portland, Oregon?

A: Portland was recommended to us by an individual who is a renowned homeless expert who said they are doing a lot of creative things for people who are homeless and working to provide options for shelter, affordable housing and support services. We looked into what they were doing and indeed the overall approach and creative cross-section of programs, including options within their downtown was impressive and intriguing. We took a similar trip to San Antonio a few years ago, where they had taken a very different approach by creating a self-contained housing for the homeless in a renovated factory area not far from the River Walk area. 

Q:  Let’s start with the basics, how are Portland and Des Moines similar and different? 

A:  First off, it is community-wide effort to house people in Multnomah County which is very similar to our focus of here in Polk County.  Portland and Des Moines have City and County money involved in supporting housing and homelessness.  A lot of cities only have city money not usually county monies.
As far as differences, Portland is roughly twice the size of Des Moines and their climate is less harsh in the winter, their lows are in the 40s, so their homeless population is even more significant. 

Q: You mentioned a community-wide effort, is there a program or coordinated campaign?

A:  Yes, a very significant and well organized initiative called “A Home for Everyone.” In a nutshell, it is a community-wide collaborative effort to house the homeless of the citizens in their county by getting everyone to work together on creating policies and making smart investments in the areas of housing, jobs, healthcare and access to services and systems coordination.  The key partners include Multnomah County, the City of Portland, the City of Gresham, Home Forward, local nonprofits and citizens. 

The stars and the moons aligned for us on this trip, because on the first day of our three-day visit they had a regularly scheduled Home for Everyone Board Meeting!  That may not sound exciting to most people, but for our group to hear policy discussions and see board governance in action was a rare and wonderful start for a visit like this.  Typically exchange groups talk Vision first and then visit some of the organizations and see housing and service options. But that doesn’t get to what we need most, which is seeing the governance part and talking with our counterparts on how they were able to engage the communities, develop the policies and ultimately integrate the right programs and housing solutions. 

Q: I saw the group’s itinerary for the visit. It was very ambitious!  Would you provide a brief overview and then a few highlights and anything that surprised you?

A:  Day one of the trip was an administrator’s and elected official’s dream come true.  We attended the A Home for Everyone Board Meeting (as I mentioned earlier) and in the evening we had dinner with the “Portland Partners” which is a cross-section of the key partners responsible for leading this major collaborative initiative.

Day two included a panel discussion on Portland’s solutions to homelessness; successes and challenges and included program leaders from Central City Concern, Home Forward and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare.  Cascadia is a major nonprofit healthcare provider for mental health and additional treatment services. They believe the most effective way to help people solve their problems is to give them a home and the treatment they need – not just treatment. We were able to ask questions of the panelists which gave us great context for their area’s challenges, the work that has been done and the challenges that remain – before we started our tours.

We then toured five different programs and places. I wish my other Des Moines team members were sharing in this interview because I know we each took away different things from the same tours.

I’ll do my best to give core information for each of the programs and one stop that was unlike anything I had ever seen. 

·      Central City Concern is what most people think of as a holistic approach. They serve single adults and families and provide affordable housing options integrated with direct social services including healthcare, recovery (not just drug abuse, but also gambling), and help getting and keeping jobs. They have a variety of housing options for people with different incomes and needs and later in the day we toured a few of their properties - Sunrise Place and Prescott Terrace.

·      Bud Clark Commons, named after a former Mayor of Portland who championed the city’s homeless plan in the 1980’s, is a large, beautiful eight-story building. What stood out for me was how they had three primary programs designated within three different parts of the building to take care of populations who may have homelessness in common, but are different and need different levels of support. It has permanent supportive housing apartments, a transitional shelter and a daytime resource center – all within the same building.

·      Outside In is where we saw what Portland is doing for their homeless youth in the areas of housing, medical care and supportive services.

·      Right 2 Dream was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The easiest description is that it is a mini-tarp city blanketing a square block area in the heart of downtown Portland. It was raining terrible when we were there, yet safe and dry under the tarps were computers, kitchens and a large area for people to sleep. Right 2 Dream is leasing the lot in Portland’s Old Town/Chinatown district from the property owner and it purpose is to be a place for homeless Portlanders to camp - legally. The welcome sign says:  Peace To All Who Enter Here.   We learned it was established on World Homeless Action Day, October 10, 2011 and the nonprofit organization says their purpose is to simply create a place where unhoused people can rest or sleep and dream without being rousted by police or private security and without being under the constant threat of violence.    

On the morning we were flying out we were able to have a working breakfast with the Director of the Home for Everyone Board who coordinates the ending homelessness efforts.  It’s a position we are looking to add here in Polk County.  We literally posted it this week.

The job position is for an Executive Director who will be responsible for guiding the vision of the Homeless Coordinating Council, Polk County Continuum of Care Board (COCB) and the community to end homelessness in Polk County. (More information is available here.)

Q:  Besides hiring the right leader for this big job, what else would you like to say in closing?

A:  In my 25+ years, this is the most focused I have seen our area in reducing homelessness.  With that has come a commitment to developing affordable housing and ending homelessness that I believe will result in not only providing better lives for all, but also becoming a “best practice” for other cities to visit and learn how we did it. 

Susie Osby is a Program Planner at Polk County Health Services. In that role, she is in charge of overall planning, implementation, and contract management for residential and support services.