Data from A Home for Everyone’s report on the Multnomah County point in time count. Infographic by Sarah Wolf.
Data from A Home for Everyone’s report on the Multnomah County point in time count. Infographic by Sarah Wolf.
Saraia Crespin, age “almost 8,” is helping her mother cook their Thanksgiving meal this year in their own home.

“Any other time of the year, the child is no help,” her mom, Coya Crespin, teases. “But she really likes cooking for Thanksgiving.”

The holiday at home means a lot to Saraia because she’s experienced homelessness.

The Crespins had been priced out of their apartment in the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland, and the two lived in motels for about six months. Saraia was just 2. “She was at an age where she thought it was fun — some of the motels had swimming pools,” says Coya.

Saraia was too little to miss their belongings, which Coya had put in storage. Coya had a job throughout that time, and she eventually found an apartment in North Portland.

The Crespins had been there five years when homelessness threatened them again in autumn 2016.

A no-cause eviction notice arrived in the Crespins’ mailbox — in everyone’s mailboxes. Titan Manor’s new owner was going to fix up the deteriorating buildings.

Losing their home this time was different for Saraia.

“At first she was confused,” Coya says. “She asked me, ‘Why are they doing this to us?’’

Coya says she wanted to be honest with her daughter, by then 7 years old. “I told her that they wanted more money.”

Coya fought the evictions, speaking at Saraia’s school, at churches, to legislators. She hoped someone would make a difference.

Saraia spoke out too. “She said she loved her home and her school, and she didn’t want to be put out of her home and her school because of greed,” says Coya.

“This is our community,” Coya says. “The community you’re ravaging [by eliminating affordable housing], this is where your children live too.”

There was a community outcry and the new owner backed off. “It gave me hope,” Coya says. “The community showed up for us, the PTA, the churches. I have hope that people really do care, and it’s not just a dollar sign for everyone.”

Homelessness on the rise

The Crespins aren’t alone in struggling to stay in a home.

Since 2015, homelessness has increased in cities across the West Coast, up 30 percent in Los Angeles, 16 percent in Seattle and nearly 10 percent in Portland.

That’s a turnaround; numbers had gone down from 2011 to 2015.

Nationally, 37 percent of the homeless are families.

Part of the cause of homelessness is the cost of renting a home, especially in hot markets like Portland. Multnomah County’s Home for Everyone office has found that the average one-bedroom apartment in the area now rents for more than $1,100 a month. That’s out of reach for working single parents like Coya Crespin, and also out of reach for people living on disability. Multnomah County’s count shows more than 18,000 people in the county rely on federal disability checks, which top out at $735 a month.

The Portland area’s numbers are better than Seattle’s or Los Angeles’ in terms of how many homeless are unsheltered. The number of homeless sleeping rough has grown 38 percent in Los Angeles and 45 percent in Seattle.

In contrast, in Multnomah County the percentage of unsheltered homeless is down 11.6 percent. The county’s point-in-time count showed even more improvement for families. In February 2015, counters found 8 percent of the unsheltered homeless were families. On Feb. 22, 2017, 4.6 percent were families.

That improvement may not continue, however.

Emily Kunkel, who works on the Family Success Team at Catholic Charities, says they’re housing more and more people, but the numbers are growing so fast it might look as though they’re not making headway.

Affordable housing scarce

Scott Langen, director of development for Human Solutions, a Portland-based organization that helps low-income families, says it’s taking longer to find a home for a homeless family. What used to take about 35 days now takes seven to eight months. Human Solutions’ shelter can no longer accommodate all the families who come for help. On one night in early November, 105 families consisting of 400 individuals came to their door. The group sent 82 of those families to motels, because their own shelter was filled.

“There’s no short-term solution,” says Langen. “A stock of affordable housing takes a long time to build up. You see the cranes, building apartment buildings, but we’re so far behind.”

Olivia Olivia, development coordinator for the Community Alliance of Tenants, also mentions the construction cranes around Portland. She notes that few of those projects are affordable housing. The alliance, funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, is in the business of preventing homelessness by advocating for tenants’ rights, says Olivia.

Kunkel says the cost of housing is the key problem driving homelessness, citing a Cornell study that shows that even a 5-percent rent increase is too much for vulnerable families. “There are some issues of addiction, but for most families it’s a sick child that means missed work, a car needing to be repaired, hours being cut — it’s the cost of rent.”

Homeless families not just in Portland

Elaine Bruce, director of social services for Clatsop Community Action, adds that medical reasons are a frequent trigger.

Kunkel and Bruce, whose organization is based in Astoria, both emphasize that homelessness isn’t just a Portland issue. It also threatens families in smaller communities, suburban communities and even rural areas.

“We see homeless families every day,” says Bruce.

For many years, the Beaverton School District led the state in numbers of homeless children — their status largely invisible to anyone who didn’t know the child was homeless.

Parents will do anything possible to keep their children off the street, says Kunkel. Children end up in foster care, with friends of the parents and in RVs.

No one knows how many homeless families belong to parishes in the archdiocese.

Jennifer Torres, scheduling coordinator for Wallace Medical, which treats many homeless families, is a member of St. Anne Parish in East Portland. She knows there are homeless families there. The parish does what it can to help — through the food bank, for instance, and with a giving tree for needy parish children during Advent.

Torres found her job at Wallace because her mother had volunteered there. It’s satisfying work, she says. “Sometimes a client we’ve helped will stop by a year later, and they’re doing so much better. It warms our hearts.”

The happy endings are sometimes hard to find. Bruce remembers one homeless family with a couple of children. The father was a veteran and the mother sick with cancer. When the father lost his job, the family landed at a Clatsop County shelter.

Bruce’s organization knew about them because they partner with the community resource desk at Providence Hospital in Seaside, where the mother was being treated.

The mother died. Bruce thinks the father is still looking for work. But the family now has a home.

“It’s bittersweet,” she admits. “We need to do a better job of preventing homelessness. No child should ever be homeless.”