a local note: politicians who might just listen

Amp has a post up about Portland city council pulling funding from the Salvation Army’s Harbor Lights Program. While Amp is quite right that there is an urgent need to increase, not decrease, such resources, I’m not going to call for the head of Tom Potter just yet. (And to be clear, Amp’s not asking anyone to do that — just write Mayor Potter and Commissioner Erik Sten and advocate for improved emergency facilities for homeless women.)
A quick look around the internets turns up this story in the local news, which links to the city’s plan to end homelessness and quotes counselors from a local intervention center as saying that

…while the city is doing a great job at moving women into permanent housing, there is always an urgent need for emergency shelters.

It seems there’s also more to the story about Harbor Lights:

For some advocates, the continued presence of empty mats at Harbor Light represents their ongoing frustration with Portland’s largest social service provider and symbolizes the city’s inability live up to assurances it made last summer, when homeless women began showing up dead in Forest Park.
“I put my reputation on the line to get the funding for the women’s Harbor Light shelter,” said Chuck Currie, outreach director at the United Methodist Church and Goose Hollow Family Shelter, “and I really feel like they are failing to live up to their promises.” […]
“The Salvation Army has the ability to provide excellent service,” Currie says. “So they can turn Harbor Light around. They have to want to, though. They have to look at this as providing service for homeless women who are often in danger rather than as padding for their budget.”

(Those are very selective quotes, so go read the whole thing, and note that it’s from 1999.) On top of that, the Salvation Army has a history of active homophobia and discrimination, so it’s an organization I’d be cautious about funding with public monies. (Note, though, this story about the Canadian branch behaving more responsibly, so there’s at least an argument for a sunshine policy instead of a boycott.)
In any case, what seems clear in all of this is that Portland needs more, not fewer, emergency shelters for homeless women. Amp makes the point that Potter and Sten do listen, and do have their hearts in the right place. Here’s the text of my letter:

I read with concern that the city council has withdrawn its support for the Harbor Lights overnight emergency shelter program. While the city’s long term plan to end homelessness certainly seems sound, and appears to be generating postive feedback from the relevant experts, I am very concerned that short-term, urgent needs may be overlooked in a ten-year plan. In particular, homeless women and children are an extremely vulnerable population who often require dedicated facilities, and I do not know of any other place for them to go for emergency shelter in Portland. If I have the figures straight, the city provides thirty such emergency beds for well over a hundred homeless women.
I would appreciate hearing back from you as to what plans are in place to provide for the immediate, urgent needs of homeless women and children in the absence of the Harbor Lights beds.

Update: damn, that was fast. Mayor Potter is overseas, but his office responded in about thirty minutes:

[…] Your email suggests to me that you saw or read the story broke initially by KATU. The Bureau of Housing and Community Development’s (BHCD) decision to withdraw City funds from WENS was based on a long-term evaluation of the shelter. BHCD concluded that WENS has maintained both substandard facilities and services for a long time going. Furthermore, WENS did not transition their clients (many of whom have patronized the shelter for months) into long-term housing solutions.
Please know that BHCD, with community partnerships, is funding enhanced services for the 34 chronic residents of WENS to transition them into permanent housing. KATU’s report fails to mention this, and that is extremely disappointing.
I was glad to read that you are concerned about homeless issues. I encourage you to support organizations that will find permanent solutions for the homeless.
Jeremy Van Keuren, Public Advocate
Office of Mayor Tom Potter

(WENS= Women’s Emergency Night Shelter; BHCD = Bureau of Housing and Community Development)
While this underlines the city’s commitment to long term solutions, I feel it neatly sidesteps my point about overlooking urgent short term needs. I don’t feel up to engaging Mr Van Keuren on the substance though, since another quick search turned up a Transition Projects report from 2004 (warning, pdf) that shows how little I know about the situation:

In June 2000, our “Women’s Reality” report found that on any given night, there were more than 800 homeless single women in the city of Portland, with fewer than 161 beds available to homeless women who were not seeking shelter from domestic violence. While bed availability has expanded slightly in the interim, there is still a dramatic lack of shelter availability for homeless single women in Portland.

Eight hundred. Whoa. If I’d stopped to think about it, I’d have realised the number had to be well over the hundred of my initial guess (grabbed in haste from a website somewhere). I have some reading to do.