A City in Need of a Solution

On any given day, more than 1,600 people wander Eugene without a permanent place to live. The ongoing crisis of homelessness here has tested city and county leaders, who have balked at providing more housing and increasing services, such as those for mental health, which would benefit people who lack shelter.

The response from the Eugene Police Department has often been an expression of concern for people living on the street. But often, the police and the Municipal Court have tended to criminalize homelessness — bringing charges of trespassing, camping and loitering for people who live on the streets, and levying fines and penalties that many people have no way to pay.

In 2016, the city of Eugene came up with a potential solution: Community Court. The program gave people charged with violations and low-level crimes a second chance. They had to stay out of trouble for four weeks and make themselves available for local services that could help them with housing, finding a job and mental health services. If they could meet all those requirements, the court would drop the charges.

The program was based on community courts in other cities and kicked off with a $200,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant. Eugene officials quickly heralded the success of the program for meeting its primary goals of cutting back on recidivism by reducing how often people who succeeded with the program found themselves back in court.

But those claims were inaccurate and untrue.

An investigation published by Eugene Weekly in January showed just how wrong those claims are, and how little impact Eugene’s Community Court was having on the problem of homelessness (see “An Unsuccessful Solution,” Jan. 31).

Using the city’s own data, EW showed that only 17 percent of defendants eligible for Community Court had their charges dismissed by “graduating” from the court. City officials said the program would cut down on recidivism rates and prevent people from cycling back into court. But that turned out not to be the case. Nearly 30 percent of people who successfully completed the Community Court program went on to be convicted under new charges  in the city’s municipal court. The rate was identical for that same group of defendants from before they entered the Community Court program.

The story also showed that, two years into the program, city officials hadn’t looked at their own Community Court data to check for ways to make the program better. For months, city officials said they would do their own analysis and finally took action after EW’s story ran in January. 

In March, the city hired an $80,000 consultant to study the program. The report won’t be ready until  June 2020 — two years after the federal grant funding the program expired.

All of this raises the question: If the city’s best idea for helping the homeless was a bust, what comes next?

In May, the Eugene City Council voted narrowly to create a new excise tax on commercial and home construction as a way to help pay for affordable housing.

This plan, if it goes forward, might solve part of the problem. But many of the issues the Community Court program has tried to solve will still go wanting. Advocates of this step toward affordable housing, having seen the negligible impact of Community Court, are moving on in search of better ideas.

Sue Sierralupe, co-founder of Occupy Medical, a nonprofit that provides health services to those who lack access to basic health care in Eugene, says she has been asking the city for years to act on the growing numbers of homeless individuals and the public health issues that arise due to the lack of housing.

“The city isn’t acting swiftly enough,” says Sierralupe. “It’s a crisis.”

Sierralupe says that instead of helping, the city has created a more hostile environment by closing down the day shelter, limiting the number of public restrooms and ticketing people for trying to sleep somewhere.

“The city is responsible for us,” she says. “Prioritize it and act on it.”

So we went looking for solutions.

EW searched around the country for cities that have pursued creative ideas to help people with a place to live and are now carrying out efforts with proven track records. As we learned, no program is perfect, and every community faces its own challenges.

We zeroed in on three communities where leaders have been able to do what ours in Eugene have not: make a meaningful difference for the homeless and the broader community.


There’s a Better Way

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque has faced many problems, including a high crime rate, high drug use and issues with affordable housing. The city has also struggled to help its homeless population, which the most recent annual census puts at 1,300.

One outgrowth of this is panhandling. The city of Albuquerque is currently in court over legal challenges to its local ordinances that prohibit people from occupying or using medians and off-ramps. The Eugene City Council on April 15 recently rejected an ordinance aimed at limiting panhandlers from hitting up drivers (the Springfield City Council passed one in 2016.)

In 2016, Albuquerque’s former mayor Richard Barry launched There’s a Better Way, a program that helps give the homeless and panhandlers (some of whom may have housing) a way to earn money and get access to services they need.

Five days a week, Hope Works, a local service organization formerly known as St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, sends out two vans to drive across the city and pick up panhandlers on street corners. If these individuals agree to work, they are taken to other parts of Albuquerque to pick up trash or do light landscaping.

Halfway through the day, the workers are provided with a lunch break. They are served a meal and are met with volunteers from Hope Works, who try to connect the individuals with what they need, whether it be mental health care, housing or steps toward employment.

At day’s end, the workers get paid $45 ($9 an hour for five hours).

With the money they earned, some will buy a hot meal or a hotel room for the night, says Alan Armijo, the director of constituent services for current Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and one of the organizers for the program.

“We are hoping to capture people in this program and to provide at least some money and to be able to get them to services,” Armijo says.

The city spends $365,000 a year to run the program, funded in part through its solid waste management department.

The program went off without a hitch, more or less.

“The first problem was there was no bathrooms,” Armijo says. But beyond that, he says, “We had no major issues or problems.”

After more than three years, the program can count its successes — paying people to clean up 317 city blocks and haul away 109,101 tons of waste in 2016. Now the program has 2,076 unduplicated workers and has helped 100 find permanent jobs, 429 get access to mental health services and another 26 land permanent housing, according to data collected by the city of Albuquerque.

By contrast, Eugene’s Community Court didn’t keep track of specifics on who were housed, found jobs or accessed mental health services. Overall, Community Court had more than 1,800 people use its services without being charged with a crime.

 “It’s not a lot,” Armijo says of those the Albuquerque program has helped. “It’s a slow process.”

Now, other cities have started their own similar versions of There’s a Better Way.

Paul Atkins oversees a program in Little Rock, Arkansas, that started in March. Atkins says the city saw potential in this program because it would fulfill different perspectives on solving homelessness.

“What we saw in it was kind of a ‘both and.’ The big idea is that it is giving people a job,” he says. “It involves labor and work and the belief that everyone should contribute to society.”

The program does have its limitations. In Albuquerque, Armijo says, the city put a cap on how many times individuals can take part in the program each month.

For the program in Little Rock, Atkins says, it has been difficult convincing panhandlers to sign up for work. If they don’t sign up for work, they are less likely to be connected with service providers.

“We haven’t had very many yeses from those who panhandle,” Atkins says. “They are less likely to get connected with services.”

Armijo says the results have shown the program can make a tangible difference in the short run as well as over time.

 “The long term,” Armijo says, “is how do we give people dignity, work for the day and get them into the services they need?”

Housing First

Orlando, Florida

The home of the Magic Kingdom draws 52 million visitors each year, but this central Florida city also is home to an estimated 2,073 people who have no permanent shelter.

In 2014, Orlando, Florida, implemented Housing First, a program operating on a simple premise: People in crisis can’t be helped effectively until they first get a place to live.

Initiated by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness (CFCH) — a nonprofit organization that works with other service providers to help end homelessness in Central Florida — and the mayor’s office, this took shape based on best practices from similar programs around the country.

Many people who are homeless struggle to meet the conditions set by landlords — mainly they don’t have a steady income to pay rent on time. The Commission on Homelessness identifies individuals who were most likely to die on the streets and placed them into homes — without conditions.

“In the big world, if I am renting you an apartment, I don’t put conditions on you if you drink or do drugs,” says Shelley Lauten, the commission’s CEO. “The goal of Housing First is give people dignity.”

Part of the idea behind Housing First, Lauten says, is that the biggest issue at hand is being homeless. If a home is provided, an individual can better get help for any other issues they might have.

“We would never look at the root cause which was not having a home,” Lauten says. “The best way to correct homelessness is stabilizing them in a home.”

Once someone is placed in housing, they are provided with services based on other needs or issues. Housing First currently has a staff of 20 to help the homeless get services for substance abuse or mental health support.

The program started off with a donation of $3 million from Advent Health Hospital in Orlando. Since then, the program has received additional funding from Orange County and the city of Orlando.

Housing First had a goal of finding housing for 100 people by 2017. At that point, the CFHC hired an outside consultant to see how effective the program was.

By July 2018, the program had housed 339, and virtually all have remained in their housing.

“It’s effectively eliminating homelessness,” says Lisa Portelli, senior advisor to the mayor for Homelessness and Social Services.

Another reason why this program is working: a coordinated system of care.

“In Central Florida there are over 100 different nonprofits,” Lauten says. “That’s not very efficient if a 100 different services are providing help a 100 different ways. The single most important thing about Housing First is to create a coordinated system of care.”

A coordinated system of care creates consistency between different service providers by having the same approach in how care is provided.

Housing First also saves money. The CFCH found that it was actually cheaper for the county to provide permanent housing for individuals than to place them in transitional or emergency housing, Portelli says.

Since 2014, the use of transitional housing has decreased by 44 percent.

The ongoing challenge the Housing First program faces is funding. Although the CFCH plans to continue housing people, they have wrestled with whether to cap the number of people enrolled in the program, Portelli says.

As they look to secure more funding for the future, they will continue to provide housing for those who need it.

“They are neighbors in our community,” Lauten says. “We have to work on building this trust and we have had many successes like that in this program.”


Street Court

Detroit, Michigan

Detroit has had its fair share of struggles, between crime and homelessness. One way the city has dealt with this is by creating a fine-forgiveness program that has helped repeat offenders who struggle with homelessness.

The program, called Street Court, seeks to forgive fines of those who enter the program and complete the requirements to pass or graduate.

Here is how Street Court works.

Individuals at homeless shelters around the Detroit area set up a meeting with a service provider. Then the service provider will determine if they are eligible by seeing whether they have any outstanding tickets in the city, and if they are homeless or high risk, says Charles Hobbes, the director of legal services for homeless veterans and an education policy worker.

Once someone who is eligible decides to enroll in Street Court, they are given an action plan that can include signing up for completing a GED, résumé building and taking steps to secure housing. The program includes a small community service component.

After 30 days, the individual will meet with the service provider and a judge to check in. If they are showing progress, they will continue with the action plan and set a court date.

“The 30 days is a way of them showing they are committed to completing the action plan,” Hobbes says. “There are very few who fall off after the 30-day plan.”

After the first check-in point, the person has an additional 60 days to complete the rest of the action plan. At the end, they attend a court hearing (which takes place at a soup kitchen), where they are cleared of their outstanding non-parking fines.

Moving forward, the court will check in at the six-month and one-year mark.

Another component of Street Court is that the program itself is unfunded. The service providers and volunteers work pro bono, Hobbes says. (Eugene’s Community Court received a large grant.)

Jonah Dart-McLean is the park maintenance supervisor in Astoria, Oregon; he is in charge of a committee that is helping Astoria come up with its own fine-forgiveness program. Dart-McLean has looked at Detroit’s program as a model.

“We haven’t completely determined what the need is in our area,” Dart-McLean says. “We wanted to get a sense on what other communities are doing. It definitely seems like accessibility is a big piece.”

One of the drawbacks of a volunteer-based program is that volunteers may get tired, and then the program could fall apart, Dart-Mclean says.

“People have a lot of fervor to start a project, but that may go out after some years,” he says.

However, after a few years, Detroit’s Street Court hired an outside consultant to measure its effectiveness and compare it to other alternative courts. From 2014 to 2015 alone, 243 people had gone through Street Court and graduated from the program. Of that cohort, 94 percent have no new non-traffic misdemeanors or felonies.

Six months after graduating, about 235 of those individuals had stable housing and 221 have a stable income, according to the report measuring the court’s success.

As the program has been around for about eight years, Hobbes says he hopes eventually they can expand it moving forward, by integrating it into the court itself.

The 21 percent of individuals who didn’t graduate Street Court committed crimes at nearly double the rate of the graduates, compared to Eugene’s Community Court, where graduates and non-graduates are essentially committing crimes at the same rate.

“At the end of that day,” Hobbes says, “they get their fines and fees waived and are closer to getting their lives back.” 

This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit journalism.uoregon.edu/catalyst or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.