The “scattered site” model: a history

NOTE:  The following is excerpted, with light edits, from an email from the author to the Portland City Council and other contributors to the effort to plan a new Homeless Services Center to replace the Oxford Street Shelter.  

Despite multiple explorations on the question of scattered vs. consolidated shelters, all of which have come to the same conclusion, the idea that the City of Portland should pay for multiple small emergency shelters persists.  I haven’t been to every meeting on this topic, but I’ve been to a lot, and my own thinking on this question has evolved as I’ve gained new information.  Here are some highlights:

In 2011, a group of dedicated people, including many who worked for organizations that serve the shelter population, and our current City Manager, met for a year as a Homelessness Prevention Task Force, producing this extensive Strategic Plan in 2012:–End-Homelessness-in-Portland–Nov-2012-Update

It’s a long report, and many people, including myself, relied on news reports and the impressions of experienced stakeholders for a distillation of the key take-aways . One of these take-aways was that scattered, smaller shelters are preferable to a larger shelter.

Despite that impression, in 2015, the City explored teaming up with Preble Street on a consolidated shelter, to be located in Bayside, and the HHS Committee met about it on January 13 and March 10, 2015.  Minutes and packets can be found by going to this page and choosing “View More” on the right and selecting “2015”: 

The packet for the March 13, 2015 meeting has a page titled “Proposed Emergency Shelter Consolidation Study” on city letterhead, followed by a sample budget.  (It’s a long packet; this material is about 3/4 of the way through.)  Note the following:

“The study will also revisit data from Preble Street regarding the estimated cost of scattered site shelters from the Homelessness Task Force. Though this model was described as an alternative to a consolidated shelter, the costs appear to be prohibitively high and thus this model may be unrealistic given the current environment.” 

In the wake of this effort and in consideration of funding cuts and obstruction from the state level, the City Council then formed another task force.  My husband, Sean Kerwin, was a member of that task force, whose work included discussion about scattered vs. consolidated shelter models.  This group also faced the reality that the duplication of facilities, staff, and services makes a scattered approach prohibitively expensive, and the task force set to considering best practices.  This group’s work was then brought to an end, since it was apparent that their work would be duplicating much of what the previous task force had already accomplished, and the newly appointed City Manager, Jon Jennings, brought his knowledge and experience as tri-chair of that first task force. This document illustrates the overlap of the two task forces, and it’s useful to see the list of stakeholders who did not pursue the scattered shelter option as a feasible approach:

Not only that, but the Strategic Plan actually doesn’t have much to say about scattered shelters being preferable.

In that 25 page plan, there are a few phrases like “other specialty shelters” and “other temporary housing” and “continuum of specialty housing” and “Regionalize the solution to homelessness in Greater Portland.”

What it does clearly recommend is: 

“a centralized intake process through which all clients who are homeless would be assessed…for diversion to housing, other specialized shelters or other housing situations…co-locating all service delivery partners within this centralized intake…”

So the “scattered shelters are better than a single large shelter” position is actually an inaccurate oversimplification of the recommendations of the Strategic Plan.  

(Also, a key element in the small-vs.-big narrative is being glossed over, which is the intake process.  A facility which manages the intake process and emergency housing for newly homeless people provides a different function than one which provides short-term housing for people who are up to speed on the “system” (such as it is) for accessing resources.  But both types tend to get lumped together as a “shelter.”  This blog post by City Councilor Belinda Ray clarifies this to an extent, while giving due credit to other service providers who have partnered with the city on specialty projects.)

Moreover, my understanding is that the family shelter here in Bayside will remain open, as will Preble Street’s teen shelter (also in Bayside), Florence House, and Milestone.  So we already have some small specialty shelters. They’re just all within a narrow,  2 mile long area on the peninsula.  If the small shelter zoning passes, other “specialty shelters” and “temporary housing” will be enabled across the city.

Given all of this, it’s time for references to smaller shelters to more accurately reflect the intentions of the Strategic Plan and the widely-recognized reality that it’s prohibitively expensive to accomplish the same goals from multiple locations vs. a single location.  More recently, service providers have also expressed concern about clients “falling through the cracks” in a multi-location model.