Tessa Clampitt’s dream home is two stories, modern, and painted pink, with land enough for a few horses.

Zechariah McLaurin and Dezirae Serrano would like to rent-to-own a nice house in a nice neighborhood in the Portland metro. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s got good schools and room for their three kids to roam.

Comfort, privacy, safe spaces for the littles — these are the building blocks of a happy childhood. But these two families, along with countless others in our city, know what it’s like to get by without them.

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They slept in cars, couch-surfed and crashed with family before finding shelter, but the stories of Portland families like theirs aren’t stories of resilience — or lack thereof.

Instead, say the directors, coordinators and officials stationed at the front lines of this crisis, they are stories of structural inequality, systemic racism and a grossly overburdened support system. They’re also stories of campaigns to shore up funding, establish permanent supportive housing and align efforts across our city’s bulging homeless services spectrum.

Most of all, they’re stories about home, and how easy it has become in Portland to find yourself without one.

Many paths, one problem

Addiction, domestic violence, disability, debt, systemic racism (such as Portland’s disgraceful history of redlining), unstable housing and employment, medical, mental health or life emergencies — each
family experiencing homelessness has a “slightly different” story, explains Jaime Johnson, director of social services at Human Solutions (HS).

A long battle with meth and alcohol addiction led to cyclical homelessness for Tessa Clampitt, her husband (they’re now separated), and their 4-year-old daughter, Kayani.

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Kayani shuffled among family in Arizona and Vancouver, Washington, as her mother cycled in and out of addiction, but Clampitt campaigned hard to keep her daughter, even when she didn’t have a roof overhead. And that life wore on both of them.

“I’ve done a lot of sleeping in my car, a lot of couch-surfing,” says Clampitt. “It’s a traumatic experience, especially for a child who doesn’t know why we’re in this situation.”

The threat of losing Kayani permanently motivated Clampitt to get serious about sobriety, and last December, after a stint in jail and treatment, Clampitt took her daughter and entered shelter at Gresham-based shelter ministry My Father’s House (MFH).

Addiction also derailed the plans Dezirae Serrano had for herself, along with her partner, Zechariah McLaurin, and their three children, Kamaya, 8, Nakias, 4, and Nezariah, 2. 

Serrano was living in Eugene with her oldest daughter when she met McLaurin online in 2015. McLaurin moved down from Portland to be with her, and Serrano soon became pregnant, but all was not well, and Serrano checked herself into a family-oriented Eugene treatment center. McLaurin couldn’t come with them, but Serrano was resolute: “I knew that in order to be there for them in the long run, I had to focus on what my needs were at that moment.”

Determined to stay close, McLaurin held onto a good job as a professional window cleaner, but not his housing. He spent days cleaning other people’s car windows in the hot sun and nights sleeping in his own car, occasionally crashing with Serrano’s aunt or mother.

In 2017, the family moved in with McLaurin’s sister in Portland, but the situation soured, and they landed in a motel room. They, too, found shelter at My Father’s House.

Addiction remains a common family-homelessness trigger, observes Heather Wiese, MFH program manager, but there are no one-size-fits-all explanations: “You have to know their story to unpack some of why they’ve gotten to homelessness and to help give them a path out of it.”

Fuzzy numbers

So, how many families experience homelessness in Portland? That’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. 

Governmental agencies collect numbers, but those often skew low compared with the tallies from nonprofits that work day in and day out with families seeking shelter. For example, some 654 families with 368 children under 18 experienced homelessness in 2017, according to the Point in Time Study, a biennial headcount of people living on the streets in Portland conducted by the city/county-partnered Joint Office of Homeless Services. (2019 numbers aren’t yet available.) 

But that doesn’t count the many families doubled up with friends and family or tent or car camping — all common scenarios for homeless families.  

Portland Public Schools alone served 1,217 homeless students from kindergarten to 12th grade during the 2018-19 school year, according to Marti Heard, lead liaison for PPS’s McKinney-Vento Program, which delivers federally mandated protections to students experiencing homelessness. Add in pre-K, Head Start, non-school-age siblings and youth up to age 21 working toward a GED or diploma, and the number of homeless children in the PPS district alone rises to 1,676.

Additionally, many couch-surfing families would qualify as “homeless” under McKinney-Vento, but don’t self-identify as such, and so aren’t counted unless the school refers them, points out Heard. Add in families forced east and south beyond district boundaries by gentrification and families teetering constantly on the brink of homelessness, she adds, and it bumps higher still. 

Portland’s several dozen shelters and homeless-services agencies keep their own counts. Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS) Executive Director Brandi Tuck estimates that approximately 12,000 Portland parents and their children experience homelessness each year, with PHFS alone helping 1,100 families annually.

MFH received 3,252 phone inquiries from families in 2018, and East Multnomah County homeless services agency Human Solutions anticipates delivering homeless services, housing assistance and job training to 2,500 adults and children in approximately 825 families this year.

And then there’s everybody waiting for help to begin: At press time, there were 600 families on the Homeless Family System of Care Waitlist in Multnomah County, according to JOHS.

A support-services maze

Portland families experiencing homelessness can access a continuum of services and resources funded by a mix of federal, state, city, county and private donor funds — a process that often begins by dialing “2-1-1” — the county’s service portal for emergency and transitional housing, plus permanent-housing support services.

But the system is byzantine, and the waits can be long, as much of our city’s homeless infrastructure was created to accommodate single adults. (At last count, there were around 16 publicly funded non-seasonal overnight shelters operating in Multnomah County, two of which exclusively serve families, with another half-dozen winter and severe-weather shelters operating intermittently.)

The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) oversees a web of service modalities and partners with community agencies and organizations to deliver services to individuals and families experiencing housing insecurity. A family poised to lose housing might be connected to tenant-based rental assistance, while already-houseless families can register for the family-shelter waitlist. The process, says JOHS Deputy Director Patricia Rojas, emphasizes “understanding unique needs of the unit of family and supporting particularly children, helping folks to navigate the trauma of homelessness.”

Portland Homeless Family Solutions is one such partner organization. The Lents-based agency runs several short- and long-term shelters along with a primary program focused on rapidly housing families and keeping them housed, with emphasis increasingly shifting to homelessness prevention.

Portland agency Human Solutions (HS), another city-county partner, also emphasizes proactive strategies and programs for preventing homelessness, operating both emergency shelters and long-term affordable housing, currently for 720 families.

Ministry and community shelters like MFH, which shelters
28 families in its primary six-month program, fill in some public- service gaps.

MFH’s goal: to help participants secure housing and employment while beefing up practical and life skills like money management and relationship-building. Some families graduate to Stepping Stones, which offers a year of onsite transitional housing to 13 families.

Structure, savings, a healthy rental reference — all of these things eliminate the housing barriers that lead to cyclical homelessness, says Wiese: “We feel like giving them tools is so vital for them to successfully not come back, and if they really apply those skills, this is a turning point.”

MFH has definitely proven a turning point for McLaurin and Serrano, who recently graduated from Stepping Stones. They’ve stabilized, paid down debt, and reconnected with their spirituality. The kids have flourished, but so have their parents. “We’ve gotten closer to God and knowing each other better and ourselves better — who we are now as adults,” says Serrano.

The expectations here are high and addiction is hard to overcome, acknowledges Clampitt, but she’s grateful for the support — and for essentials she no longer takes for granted, like toilet paper. She’s 10 months clean, and pondering how childhood exposure to abuse and addiction primed her for this life path. She wants a different outcome for Kayani, who struggles with trauma-related issues and is rediscovering how to be a kid. 

Set up for failure?

Three things we know for sure about homelessness, notes Tuck, are that it’s familial and cyclical, with homeless populations consistently skewing young. Half the children PHFS assists are under age 5, and about 25 percent of the total client population are toddlers.

We also know that families of color are disproportionately affected. African-Americans account for about 3 percent of the city’s population, but they make up 12 percent of the homeless population, according to the Oregon Community Foundation. And Tuck estimates a staggering 60 percent of the families PHFS assists are families of color. And, as the McLaurin-Serranos discovered, even full-time employment isn’t a fail-safe. Many families experiencing homelessness have working parents, but wages just aren’t keeping step with rising housing costs, notes Tuck: “A lot of the market rate housing that’s coming on right now is luxury-rate units. A family with three kids can’t afford these studio apartments coming online for $1,700-plus a month. No way they can afford that townhouse for $2,500. So the families experience homelessness because they can’t find housing they can afford.”

Even a non-luxury two-bedroom apartment in the Portland metro now rents for about $1,334 monthly. A minimum-wage earner grosses $1,720 monthly. From there, notes HS shelter manager Tamara Holloway, it’s simple math: “You’re already set up for failure. That’s why people start having to borrow and take out loans, and that debt provides a barrier to families.”

Getting re-housed takes incredible footwork, and that goes double for parents of young children, who must confront the practical challenge of meeting kids’ basic daily needs without a roof overhead. “When people are homeless, they’re thinking about feeding their kids and bathing them,” says Serrano.

Getting kids to school from wherever you’re crashing is another problem entirely. Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students experiencing homelessness are entitled to remain at and be transported back to the school they were attending while housed. They’re also entitled to enroll at their neighborhood school without proof of a permanent address and are connected with wraparound support and supplies, from food, clothing and academic support to shelter — plus housing-program referrals. Of course, notes Heard, it’s hard to focus on math homework when you’ve got an hourlong commute each way, or you’re squished into a motel room or a noisy, open-plan shelter, or you haven’t had a bath since last week: “They’re not focused, we see dips in their academic performance. Assessment levels are lower for these students, graduation rates are lower, mental health and counseling referrals are very high.”

‘We have to align and coordinate’

As the contours of this crisis shift and homelessness comes to be viewed as a structural failing and not a personal one, approaches are shifting, too, and with them, dollars.

Portland’s 2019-20 biennial budget earmarks $32 million to continue funding JOHS efforts, with another $500,000 marked for addiction-treatment services. JOHS is emphasizing a housing-first model focused on single-occupancy shelter layouts, notes Rojas, which means closing some long-lived shelters and opening two new family shelters.  

At press time, PHFS was preparing to open the Lents Family Campus, which will house 26 families in private family bedrooms and offer wraparound supports, training and help getting rehoused.  

In the nearby Foster-Powell neighborhood, the doors are already open at Lilac Meadows, a family shelter operated by HS, housed within a motel retrofitted to accommodate 40 families and also offering robust wraparound support.

And MFH will soon break ground on an on-site job training center with a functioning coffee shop and thrift store, where residents can develop marketable career skills.

A $652.8-million affordable housing bond passed by Portland-area voters last year is already bearing fruit, with some 700 affordable-housing units built or in construction and another 600 planned.

But you can’t truly address homelessness without addressing the affordable-housing crisis it fantails out from, says Heard: “People who don’t have school-age children aren’t as fully aware of what’s happening in the city as far as mass displacement of lower- and middle-income families. It’s shocking, and it’s overwhelmingly impacting families of color. We’re losing the diversity of our city.”

“Going forward, we need enough resources to ensure families get the help they need when they need it,” says Tuck. “We can do this by gathering data, true community collaboration and coordination, and adequate staff training. We’ve got to be able to target our dollars and scale interventions and do it in a coordinated way so we’re not just wasting money.”

We must also link up the city’s many siloed housing, health and education programs, adds Rojas: “That becomes the bigger list if there isn’t much infrastructure in the community at large. The systems aren’t necessarily communicating really well. We have to align and coordinate.”

Meanwhile, families are finding their own paths forward. 

When she graduates from MFH, Tessa Clampitt hopes to become a recovery mentor and relocate to Arizona with Kayani to care for her ill mother.

“I hope [Kayani] can see what I’m doing now and model that instead of modeling my old behaviors,” she says. “I hope she can see that I did these things: I earned my diploma; I was homeless, but now I’m not; I was able to leave situations that were bad.”

At press time, McLaurin and Serrano had re-entered the housing market with high hopes and a nest egg in hand, thanks to MFH’s savings program. McLaurin’s car-detailing career is flourishing, and Serrano has started a career as a certified nurse’s assistant.

The economics of raising kids here still give them pause — can you ever really get ahead when rent and day care cost an entire paycheck? — but it’s time to get out there and see, says McLaurin: “We’re ready — not just financially — to be independent. And as far as the way we look at life now compared to before, we’re more appreciative.”

Serrano used to judge homeless people. Now she knows how easy it is to land there yourself, and that’s a hard truth she wishes more Portlanders would acknowledge: “It could be anybody. One wrong decision, one bad relationship, a breakup, a divorce — anything can lead to this.”

NOT JUST A PDX PROBLEM: Oregon homelessness by the numbers

•   Almost 22,000 — or 3.75 percent – of Oregon students experienced homelessness in 2017-18.

•  Oregon is home to 1.3 percent of the U.S. population, but accounts for 2.6 percent of the U.S. homeless population.

•  1.9 percent of Oregonians are African-American, but 6 percent of Oregon’s African-American population is homeless.

•  150,000 Oregon households have experienced short-term homelessness.

•  50 percent of Oregon renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

SOURCES: OREGON COMMUNITY FOUNDATION, ODE, AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY

How Can Families Help?

Buy Street Roots. This small-but-mighty newspaper, for sale on a street corner near you, reports on issues related to houselessness and provides jobs to Portlanders struggling with housing insecurity. And purchasing a copy offers you an opportunity to model compassionate engagement with your kids.

Check out Hands On Greater Portland, which offers a robust calendar of kid-friendly volunteer opportunities around the city, at handsonportland.org. Serving a meal won’t solve this crisis, but it’ll break down barriers and promote meaningful interactions.

Be a YIMBY. Say “Yes in my backyard!” by supporting the construction of duplexes and ADUs. And if an encampment crops up near you, resist the temptation to glower and complain. Instead, read up on legislative advocacy efforts, then call your legislators and tell them you support housing reform.

Erin Bernard
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