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Q&A with Heather Lyons: Learning from Portland, Oregon’s Ten-Year Planning Process
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Heather Lyons was part of the team that helped create Portland, Oregon’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The city’s Ten-Year Plan is credited with reducing overall street homelessness by 39 percent, and chronic homelessness by 70 percent. She chats with the HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans to share lessons learned from Portland’s planning process.
Q: What was your role in the creation of Portland’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness?

Erik Sten, the City Commissioner of Portland at the time, was the champion of the plan. I acted more as a technician in the process. While Erik was chairing meetings and talking to the media, I tried to make sure everyone had the information they needed. I supported the staff involved in organizing the process, but it was definitely a group effort. We all worked closely to create the pieces that form Portland’s Ten-Year Plan. Frankly, we could have knocked out a Ten-Year Plan document in three days. But it never would have been as successful if we had not taken time to build community support.

Q: What helped make Portland’s Ten-Year Plan so successful?

A successful plan like Portland’s requires significant community organizing efforts. We worked hard to bring together people from government, non-profits, and all across the community to be as creative as possible. Our plan was informed by data gathered from over 600 life history interviews with people experiencing homelessness. Sisters of the Road conducted the oral histories. The other important piece was the human connection that developed between the agencies that worked together on the plan. We learned that people who are working on homelessness in a community do not always talk to each other. We had to actively bring people together around a common issue.

Q: How can other communities learn from Portland’s Ten-Year Planning process?

This is about systems change. Typically, people look at systems and say, “Your system needs to change, not mine!” The challenge is to figure out how to bring all the systems to the table, using a common language. We have to bring people together in a way that does not feel threatening or overwhelming. Communities have to carve out time, energy, and resources. People have to work together to change policies that will make systems change happen.

It is critical to have staff dedicated to organizing people through an organic process. There will be a lot of bumps. The process will go forwards and backwards, and it will take a lot of time. It is also critical to identify issues that people can work on together. As people start collaborating, they begin to build trust and learn how to work together.

I believe accountability is critical. Creating a plan is about getting something done to end homelessness. How many units of housing will your community create? How many people will exit homelessness? Communities must create outcomes that are measurable and make commitments. Otherwise, people around the table will just use that time for networking rather than moving the Ten-Year Plan forward.

Q: Can communities replicate Portland’s experience?

I have learned that you are never going to find a community that is exactly like another community. However, there are many similarities in the process. If you focus on these similarities, it will help bring people together. I believe the process is about people building relationships across different sectors. Communities should examine other cities and adapt best practices from across the country. But there is no one city that has figured it all out. Every community has to go through its own process.

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