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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

Press Pass: It's The Housing, Stupid

The following are headlines from a few local news sites on a recent Sunday. In Ashland: “City Council to vote on camping ordinance, consider funding to extend emergency shelter operation.” In Medford: “Medford council worries about draining last federal dollars to help homeless people.” In Grants Pass: “Parents, superintendent want fence between school and homeless campers.” Besides all being about homelessness, there’s another similarity in these stories. None talked about the lack of housing in the Rogue Valley.

News outlets, JPR included, are generally not the best venues for connecting the dots with problems as complex as homelessness. We’ve reported stories about local homeless service providers, alarming fentanyl busts in the area, and the challenges for communities to provide mental health care. News stories can better describe discrete slices of bigger issues, rather than providing a holistic view. That’s why I was intrigued when I read about a recent book that zoomed out on this issue, Homelessness Is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns. Published in 2022, it’s by Gregg Colburn, an associate professor in the Runstad Department of Real Estate at the University of Washington and data scientist Clayton Aldern.

The book sets out to answer the following question: why do some cities have huge homelessness problems and others don’t? Their finding is as obvious as it is fascinating: that the biggest predictor of homelessness is cost and availability of housing. Other factors like drug use, mental illness and poverty make people vulnerable to losing their housing, but it’s housing markets – rents and availability of homes – that are the biggest drivers.

While the authors live in Seattle, Washington, it’s hard not to see parallels in Oregon. According to the state, approximately 140,000 housing units are currently needed to accommodate the general population of Oregon. JPR reporter Jane Vaughan recently reported that Grants Pass needs to grow its housing by approximately 4,000 units between 2020 and 2040 to accommodate population growth. That’s an increase of nearly 28% of its current number of households, according to its 2023 Housing Production Strategy.

In the meantime on the homelessness front, Grants Pass and Josephine County officials are waiting to find out whether a case involving the city of Grants Pass will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Johnson v. Grants Pass, involves Gloria Johnson, who was homeless in the Southern Oregon city. The lawsuit was brought by the Oregon Law Center on behalf of Johnson and other homeless individuals. It considers whether Grants Pass can punish people who are involuntarily homeless for camping in public if low-barrier shelters are unavailable. It argues that the city’s ordinances aimed at restricting homeless camping violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibitions of cruel and unusual punishment. The outcome could have national ramifications for cities’ ability to police public camping.

In the past year, JPR has reported on Rogue Valley cities that are severely rent burdened, a phrase the

state defines as: the “share of households that spend more than 50% of their income on rent.” Here are

the percentages of households that are considered severely rent burdened in cities in Southern Oregon, according to the state:

Grants Pass: 32.3%

Ashland: 32.2%

Klamath Falls: 32.1%

Medford: 28.5%

Coos Bay: 26.5%

Simply pushing homeless people out of town, denying them a place to sleep or objecting to a homeless shelter in your neighborhood – whether you consider those tactics cruel or not – just seems unproductive given how tight the housing market is. As long as housing is unavailable, people will be homeless.

Colburn and Aldern consider other individual contributors to homelessness like mental illness, poverty and drug use. But, Colburn writes, they’re not the biggest predictor of why some cities have large homeless populations. “Cities with higher rents and lower rental-vacancy rates (i.e., tighter housing markets) see higher per capita rates of homelessness. This is where a fuller picture comes into view. Individual risk factors help account for who in a given city might lose their housing at any given point in time, but housing markets – rents and vacancy rates – set the context in which those risk factors are expressed.” Basically, the likelihood of someone with these risk factors becoming homeless varies depending on where they live. “The consequence of being poor in Seattle, for example, is very different than in Cleveland.”

According to the national advocacy organization Mental Health America, Oregon ranks near the bottom nationally – 48 out of 51 – for adults with “a higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care.” Take a tight housing market like the Rogue Valley’s and overlay poor access to mental health services and an increase in drugs like fentanyl, and making progress on homelessness becomes a three-dimensional chess game.

In a discussion about his book, Colburn questions whether our current investments in homelessness are helping us in the short- or long-term. One promising investment in the Rogue Valley is coming from the Ashland nonprofit OHRA, or Opportunities for Housing, Resources and Assistance. OHRA runs a resource center and transitional housing program out of a renovated hotel. According to Executive Director Cass Sinclair, they see about 65 people per day in Ashland. Half are families that are one paycheck away from eviction. The nonprofit housed 78 families experiencing homelessness in 2023, as of this writing. Maybe more significantly, they kept 158 families from being evicted and potentially falling into homelessness over the past year. In this way, OHRA is going upstream to help address homelessness before it becomes an emergency.

The headline of this column was taken from a classic health policy article titled “It’s The Prices, Stupid,” by Princeton health care economist Uwe Reinhardt. It studied another complex problem: why the U.S. spends so much more on health care than other countries. The researchers found that Americans just pay more for the same health services than people in other parts of the world, despite the fact that our health outcomes are not better, and in some cases are worse than other industrialized countries. Colburn and Aldern present a similarly obvious finding when it comes to addressing homelessness: making progress will require creating much more housing.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.