Restoring Hope and a Human Connection Reduces Chronic Homelessness in Portland, Oregon
1 member recommended this.
Click here to recommend.
1 member recommended this.
Click here to recommend.
Erik Sten, former City Commissioner of Portland, Oregon, helped design the city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The plan resulted in the reduction of overall street homelessness by 39 percent and chronic homelessness by 70 percent. Erik shares his reflections on Portland’s experience in “A Human Connection,” a report published by Living Cities. He discusses what he learned about the vital importance of hope and human connection. Through hope and connection, communities can come together to end homelessness.
“If any city is willing to try new things, it is Portland, Oregon. It has a progressive government, strong political will, and a great climate for change. As we started digging in with guidance from national leaders, we realized something was not working,” explains Erik Sten, former City Commissioner of Portland and author of “A Human Connection”. The report, published by Living Cities, documents the process of creating Portland’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The plan is known as “Home Again” and was a collaborative effort. It resulted in a reduction of overall street homelessness by 39 percent and chronic homelessness by 70 percent.
Through his work in Portland, Erik has come to believe that the difference between people who stay on the streets and people who exit homelessness is a broken spirit. “I believe it is what makes us intrinsically human, and the spirit--whatever that is--can break. No service can fix that. We have to find ways for people to act like people. Once that happens we can reignite that.”
While there is no simple way to define a path for reawakening one’s humanity from a place of total isolation, Erik believes that it is connected to hope. “People with hope almost always find a way. A person who is without hope cannot succeed. Hope is primarily derived from connections with other people.”
Erik emphasizes the important contribution of Genny Nelson to the creation of Portland’s Ten-Year Plan. She is co-founder of Sisters of the Road, an organization that conducted over 600 in-depth oral histories with people experiencing homelessness. These life stories deeply informed Portland’s Ten-Year Plan. Listening to the words and life stories of people experiencing homelessness established a platform for understanding the needs of Portland’s homeless population. “Without their momentum and advocacy, we certainly would have never strayed so far off the standard course,” explains Erik.
Interview after interview conducted by Sisters of the Road revealed that people who endured chronic homelessness were living with a broken spirit. Many people defined hitting a moment of brokenness that lasted for years and feeling like there was no one they could turn to. “If we do not address this, then we cannot solve the problem,” offers Erik.
When Erik announced that Portland would end chronic homelessness, he started to see a response. He would be stopped on the street by well-meaning people asking him what they could do to help. He was confounded to realize that he did not have a good answer for them. Then a light went off. Erik says, “I realized: this is a human problem, but I can’t tell people what concrete action they can take.”
From this point forward Erik’s perspective changed. “It is an entirely different process, particularly for government officials, to spend time listening. It doesn’t always give you an easy answer that allows you to write an ordinance and pass a budget request. The challenging and interesting part of learning to listen is that you have to act differently.”
While Erik understands that it is easy to lose hope on the streets, he counters that it can be an amazing feeling when someone invites another to cook a meal together. When Portland replicated the Project Homeless Connect model, Erik shares, “I saw a lot of magic happening when people started talking to each other. It is pretty rare that mainstream society talks to people who are alienated.”
Erik says that creating opportunities for human connection is a constant and sometimes difficult task. Yet he believes there are as many ways to make a human connection as there are humans. “It is about taking your strength and figuring out how to welcome people.” Creating and fostering human connection is not something that lends itself to public policy planning. Community organizing is essential, and it is a task that is never finished. “What I found is that there are all kinds of groups that want to do more. The energy is contagious, “ says Erik.
Erik has witnessed how barriers come down when people are human with each other. One example of this kind of opportunity for connection occurred with Erik’s own church, a Greek Orthodox congregation in Portland. They wanted to do something to help. “If we had decided that we were going to invite twenty people experiencing homeless to the church and have a rap session, it would have been miserable.” Instead they decided to have a cooking event. Families would come and cook alongside people experiencing homelessness. “Who doesn’t like to eat a good meal together?” Father Paul Schroeder became so enamored with the cooking class model that he decided to leave the priesthood to set up similar programs all over Portland.
Erik talks about the concept that systems need to be humanized. “It is unrealistic that the system would be human. Big human systems are not human. Show me a bureaucratic system that is human.” He reiterates the importance of making connections between all community members.
“I heard people who do the work saying that they felt they got more out of helping than the people they helped. People are hungering for this work. People find a vacuum in their lives. It is cliché to say that there are this many people experiencing homelessness and our society is broken. There is more to it. Everybody’s spirit seems to be helped by making these connections.” It presents an interesting dynamic about what needs to be done in our society.
Hopelessness can be experienced by a person with a home who feels there is nothing he or she can do to help people who are homeless. It can also be experienced by a person living on the street. “Restoring hope is immeasurable in terms of its value for every member of society,” shares Erik. We all benefit when human connections and hope are restored.
Read Erik’s report “A Human Connection” to learn more about how Portland, Oregon made a dent in chronic homelessness.
Check out the "Related Items" to the right of the screen.
Type of Resource: