Opinion: Business leaders need to address root causes of homelessness

When Business for a Better Portland launched last year, our founders rallied around a simple idea: When our community thrives, business thrives.

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That means we recognize that when everyone in our community has access to the basics — a good-paying job, a decent meal and a safe place to call home—our community will be stronger and our businesses (large and small) will be more profitable. We believe that business owners have a responsibility to advocate for policies that will improve the lives of not just their families and their employees but all of their neighbors. 

There’s no denying that our state faces some huge challenges: a housing affordability crisis that is feeding a rise in homelessness, a state budget squeezed by a broken public pension system and a woefully inadequate corporate tax structure and an overburdened transportation network that is creating traffic jams and an increase in carbon emissions. 

One way the business community can take on these challenges is by making charitable donations. In the short term, financial contributions are often the fastest and most effective means of providing assistance to those who need it most. 

An outstanding example is the recent announcement of a $1.5 million gift from Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle to support a new “navigation center” in Portland. More than just a homeless shelter, this center is intended to be a place for connecting to service providers that will help guide individuals to stability. City and county leaders were on hand to herald the announcement as the kind of public-private partnership needed to address our community’s homelessness crisis.

Mr. Boyle’s extremely generous contribution is a boost to community efforts to keep our neighbors safe by increasing shelter space and access to services. I am hopeful that when we look back decades from now, we see this as the moment the business community recognized the scale of the challenge we face and the crucial role they play in solving it.

And yet more than donations are needed to solve the crisis. In recent years, the number of Oregonians experiencing homelessness has exploded across the state. At last count 22,541 K-12 students in Oregon schools were without stable housing, a new record. More than 60% of these homeless students live outside Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. We only have to look to our neighbor California to understand how the statewide housing crisis harms our economy, where 30% of residents cannot afford local rents, no matter what part of the state you’re looking at.

To make lasting progress and reduce the number of people pushed to the streets, we must commit—as business leaders and members of the larger community—to support upstream solutions that address the root causes of homelessness. 

So what do those solutions look like?

— Continued efforts to make housing more affordable and to address income inequality. In 2018 there is no county in our state with average rents that are affordable for a worker employed full-time at minimum wage. Businesses should support wage and workplace policies that lift working families out of poverty and also collaborate with local jurisdictions to secure long-term revenue options to support affordable housing and homeless services, especially in the absence of federal leadership. 

— Increase housing choices and preserve stability for renters. Businesses should push state and local governments to do their part to increase affordable housing choices and enact policies that preserve the promise of the Fair Housing Act for the 40% of Oregon households who are renters.

 — Funding for addiction and mental health services.  According to Dr. David Bangsberg, Director of OHSU’s School of Public Health, “While homelessness is often associated with mental illness, losing a home more often causes or exacerbates mental illness than mental illness leading to housing loss.” Permanent supportive housing with mental health services is not only humane, it also has the highest return on investment, preventing those who are most vulnerable from frequently cycling through crisis systems and the streets. 

— Comprehensive revenue reform. To strengthen our education system, businesses should support sensible efforts to both rein in the mounting costs of public employee benefits and raise revenue by reforming the state’s corporate tax structure – at the same time. 

— Eliminate no-cause evictions and strengthen tenant protections. During the 2017 state legislative session, Business for a Better Portland engaged its members to end the use of no-cause evictions to remove families from their homes. While the initial legislative effort failed, passage of such a policy would help prevent and reduce homelessness and strengthen communities.

While Business for a Better Portland is still in its rookie season when it comes to civic engagement, we hope to pursue these solutions alongside veteran organizations like the Portland Business Alliance and Oregon Business & Industry.

Both associations are in the midst of leadership changes, offering a chance to reorient their policy agendas in ways that improve the state’s business climate by advancing long-term, collaborative solutions to our most pressing challenges.

Oregon’s business leadership has an opportunity to come together to address the causes of homelessness. If we succeed, we’ll benefit from a stronger economy, a more productive workforce, safer communities and reduced spending on public assistance programs. If we fail, the hero philanthropists among us are going to need to write bigger checks. 

Ashley Henry is chief collaboration officer at Business for a Better Portland.

A version of this column appears in the May 2018 issue of Oregon Business. To subscribe, click here.