Sophie Ross left in her van. “I heard the roommate with his group of neighbors talking about me when I got out of the shower. And the window was open and I could hear them calling me a freak. I was like ‘I just can’t, I just can’t listen to them do that;’ it was intolerable and I decided to go,” she says. Ross, a trans woman, has been looking for stable housing ever since the incident in 2021.
After raising her son, Josephine was evicted from the apartment she had lived in for 20 years. “I didn’t plan on being homeless; I just got caught up in the rise of rent. One day it changed to $1400; I couldn’t afford it, and in 2010, I was homeless and on the streets,” she says. After contracting pneumonia while homeless, Josephine spent months in a hospital and then an assisted living facility before she was displaced again. “They sent me across the street. They sent me to the tent,” she says. That’s where she found David.
Kelli McBride was ‘outside’ for what she would consider six years. “The streets call you because it’s what you know. It’s where, 24 hours a day, there’s somebody, and that is your world,” she says. McBride now lives in stable housing, but has found leaving the camaraderie she found on the streets an incredible challenge. “Housed people don’t live in a community like we did,” she says.
The number of homeless individuals exploded in Oregon during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. After minor fluctuations in the mid-2010s, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County increased 30% from 2019 to 2022 to a total of 5228 people, according to a study by the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “We’re in dire need; the city I grew up in is very different than the city I live in today,” says Stephanie Rogers, a wellness program coordinator at Rose Haven, a Portland day shelter.
Rogers is not alone in her view towards the housing crisis. In a poll conducted in February 2023, 94% of Portlanders called homelessness a “very big problem,” calling on the state, county, and city governments to take quick action. Since then, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has unveiled a controversial plan to create six large city-approved camping sites and allow Portland leaders to prohibit unsanctioned camping on city streets. The plan has been under scrutiny, as Multnomah County and state leaders say they will not allocate money for the mass camps. “That [plan] just seems like we’re shuffling people around,” says Rogers. “If we don’t help them be part of change, starting within themselves, it’s just going to be a continuation.”
As housed residents, local leaders, policy experts, and others air out grievances and debate solutions, one group of key stakeholders have consistently been locked out of the conversation: homeless individuals. Personal stories from those who have experienced Portland’s crisis firsthand reveal a much more horrific and complex issue than popular coverage would suggest.
Sophie Ross experienced homelessness before beginning her gender-affirming care, but not in the same way. “For trans women, it’s quite remarkable, to see different reactions from people and learn more about social dynamics at play that I never knew about before,” she says, adding, “It’s more scary and complex.” According to reports by the University of California Los Angeles’ Williams Institute, 8.3% of transgender adults across all sexual orientations had recent experiences with homelessness, compared to just 1.4% of cisgender straight adults; they are also four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime regardless of housing status.
In addition to safety concerns, navigating identity and various supports has been difficult without housing. “I’ve had to learn to improvise things like where I’m going to maintain gender affirming personal care,” she says. “It’s hard to explore human relationships, especially intimacy … because those feelings do happen, even when you’re homeless.” Portland does offer some culturally appropriate care for queer citizens facing housing insecurity. Downtown day shelter Rose Haven holds weekly LGBTQ+ support meetings and nurse visits while providing showers, clothing, hygiene products, and emotional support. “You can give people homes, you can give people cars, you can give people things, but if they don’t have the mental health capacity to work with the tools they have it’s going to be a continual problem,” says Rose Haven coordinator Stephanie Rogers.
While the challenges have been abundant and constant for Ross, embracing her identity has also helped her persevere. “On a more personal note, I’m a childhood sex abuse survivor, and I’ve lived with suicidal ideation, but when I came out that ideation stopped,” says Ross. “The urgency to have permanent housing is so much greater, because I have a greater sense of value for my life now.”
Ross and her partner originally found community at the Q Center on N Mississippi Avenue, the largest LGBTQ+ community center in the Pacific Northwest, according to its website. As part of working and volunteering for the organization, they allowed Ross to sleep in her van in the parking lot. After a breakup with her partner, Ross stayed in various shelters and temporary housing, and transitional motels.
Currently, Ross believes “rapid housing placement” is the most important thing for the government to focus on. “Put people in a room. Give them somewhere to sleep and take a bath and wash up and regain their sense of dignity on their own,” she recommends. Governor Tina Kotek recently established a statewide goal of building 36,000 new homes per year, a 60% increase from prior years. Meanwhile, the state legislature recently passed a $200 million homelessness package targeted to fund transitional and permanent housing. “Given the mighty accumulation of resources that our country wields, it really is like ‘come on,’ we know, we know we can solve this problem by now,” says Ross. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential and it sounds like it appears as if there’s the right people in the right places to utilize our potential, so I would like to see Oregon leading the way, building the model for how this goes across the country and possibly around the world,” she added.
“I’m waiting on my ring now,” Josephine says, looking up at David. “I’d rather be by him, with him, married to him than alone; he’s all I have.” The two have been together ever since that night Josephine was sent to the tent, but they haven’t been able to find much stability when it comes to housing. “Shelters, assisted living, hospitals, I’ve done it all… I’m a long ways away from where I used to be,” says Josephine. She is one of many Oregonians who fell victim to skyrocketing rent prices. According to a Willamette Week story from December 2022, the number of Portland evictions have skyrocketed to over 700 per month, significantly higher than before the pandemic. In 2012, KGW reported that the average Portland rent was $848 per month; now it’s more than $1800 per month, according to data from Zillow. High eviction numbers will likely continue as 2023 rent hikes were capped at 14.6%, which is the highest it’s been since Oregon’s rent control law took effect five years ago. “Anybody could become homeless at this rate … if you don’t be careful your kids will be on the ground with you,” says Josephine.
On the street, the couple describes a perpetual state of suffering; “This homelessness is one of the worst things I’ve witnessed in my life … it’s like living on the edge everyday,” says Josephine. In the first six months of 2022, 207 Oregonians experiencing homelessness died, with 35% of those deaths occurring in Multnomah County. 32 people died from unintended injuries, eight died by suicide, and seven died by homicide. The overwhelming majority of deaths were labeled as “natural causes.” “It hurts my heart, it’s like I’m dying trying to get out,” says Josephine.
She suggests education as a key to avoiding life on the street. “Education is the tool, never get enough of education. Stay plugged in,” she says. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, “Youth with less than a high school diploma or GED have a 346% higher risk of experiencing homelessness than youth with at least a high school degree,” and “the unemployment rate for someone with less than a high school diploma is almost three times that of someone with a bachelor’s degree.” Josephine’s son received a master’s degree and now has a daughter of his own.
Josephine and David have been on waitlists for housing, but have not received much sign of support. As time goes on, hope dwindles; “How do you come out of homelessness? There’s no way out, that’s what I still believe,” Josephine remarks. For now, she dreams of David proposing and a day when she can be “making ends meet, getting bills paid, going to parties and movies, and sending the kids money … that’s living life,” she says.
Kelli McBride had been placed in housing several times, but returned to the street. “That loss of community makes you want to come back and that is the cycle of homelessness,” she says. Finally, after a harsh winter, she made the hard choice to settle down, simply for the sake of survival. “I got to a place [where] I didn’t know if I was going to make it through summer,” she says. She entered the shelter system and was transferred all over town, before entering a transitional motel. “It was a great transitional step to practice having my own space,” McBride remarked. She also completed a course through Rent Well that taught her rights and responsibilities as a renter. Rent Well, a transition program, is a 15-hour tenant education program based in Oregon and Washington that prepares people to be “responsible, successful, and stable tenant[s],” according to its website.
However, even with a good deal of preparation to reenter a permanent living situation, the transition was difficult. “They don’t prepare somebody for it … it creates even more isolation because once you have housing you can’t talk to your friends,” McBride says. She wished those helping her had told her where the library or community was so that she could start building connections before she even arrived. A study published in 2021 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that nearly 50% of homeless people already feel loneliness on the street; however, McBride described feeling more intense isolation when entering housing, something that is often not acknowledged.
“They don’t talk about it … If the homeless were honest and you asked them ‘what keeps you from getting housing,’ the words will come out: ‘I don’t want to be alone,’” says McBride. While there are lots of plans to build more housing, there is little concern about transitioning homeless individuals into new dwellings. Under a draft of Mayor Wheeler’s plan to convince Portland’s homeless population to reside in mass camps or alternative housing, the city could give out criminal citations for public camping resulting in a fine of $100 or 30 days in jail. McBride rebukes the idea, saying, “Putting them in housing before they’re ready is clearly a waste of money.”
Her plan would entail “community reintegration centers” where people who are recently housed and homeless can come together. In her vision, “there’s laundry, a pool table, and you can sit and talk with people that are going through it.” It would be a safe space to talk where people could discuss their common struggles: “The biggest step—and it won’t cost a dime—is you start talking about how hard [the transition] is,” she says.
Unfortunately, McBride rarely feels like people listen to her ideas. “They speak about ‘lived experience’ meaning ‘we’re talking to the people,’ but they don’t. They’re deciding on what’s best for them and how to spend the money, not what’s best for us,” she says.
Despite decisive plans and big dreams, the solution to Oregon’s housing crisis may actually rely on communal, ground-up work. “We are all in positions of power, because I think power comes from within, and power is centered in our heart and soul,” says Rogers. “And I think when we start looking at the world from that perspective, we start caring about ourselves, and then we care about each other,” she adds. As someone whose brother passed away on the streets due to addiction, Rogers, who spends many of her days around those in need, has a uniquely hopeful outlook: “There’s so much about what is wrong, and that’s one of the beautiful things about being part of something as wonderful as Rose Haven; every day people are showing up to help each other … I think the more we focus on what is happening and how people are showing up, I think we would be surprised at the good that’s happening every day.”