Art & Culture
August 25, 2009

Is a jail also a home?

You may have seen, heard or read about the Great Vancouver Versus Seattle Debate, held by the SFU City Program and VIA Architecture.  Well, here’s a variation in print: the Portland Versus Vancouver Smackdown.

It began with Vancouver’s Tyee, which did a series by Christine McLaren on Portland and featured articles on Why Portland Beats Vancouver and Portland’s Progress on HomelessnessThat in turn was critiqued by Clark Williams-Derry at Seattle’s Sightline Institute.  (Disclosure: I’m on the board of Sightline.)

Okay, too many links.  I’d recommend all the items – but here’s an excerpt from Clark’s piece that jumped right out at me.

McLaren points to Portland’s recent progress in tackling its own homeless problems as evidence that Vancouver’s homeless policies and funding sources simply aren’t up to snuff.  Perhaps that’s right.  But focusing on a few of Portland’s successes misses a huge and somewhat hidden blemish in the Rose City’s homeless record: Portland puts vastly more people in jail than Vancouver.

The numbers on homelessness rates themselves are a bit dicey.  Both cities do one-night counts of their homeless population (here’s Portland’s, and here’s Vancouver’s). But the counts are hard to compare directly, since they were done on different dates, used slightly different  methods and definitions, use different geographic boundaries, and could have different error rates.  Because of the methodological confusion, I’ll call the numbers on homeless rates a draw — while noting that the raw counts found that Multnomah County alone, with only 714 thousand residents, had slightly more unsheltered homeless folks than all of Metro Vancouver, which is three times Multnomah’s size.

But the difference in prison and jail populations between BC and Oregon are simply staggering, and subject to the none of the data confusion that surrounds homeless counts. Oregon’s state prison system houses almost 14,000 inmates, and Portland’s jail population tops 1,300.  In contrast, British Columbia has more total residents than Oregon, yet only about 2,700 total inmates in its jails and prisons.  Apples to apples, Oregon imprisons more than 5 times as many people as BC.  And, of course, many of Oregon’s prisoners are locked away for drug crimes — which is at the root of many of Vancouver’s most public homelessness struggles.

The bottom line:  including Portland’s large and growing prison population puts the city’s “success” in homeless policy in a different light.  Portland’s homeless problem may seem less pressing, but that’s largely because — as is completely typical in the United States — Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail, where it’s harder to see.

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