Understanding the Issue


Causes of Family Homelessness

In the Portland tri-county area, 4,427 students experienced homelessness during the last school year. The causes of homelessness are many, and you may get very different responses on what the causes are depending who you ask. In our experience of almost two decades of working with families with children, these are the causes of homelessness that we see most often.

Lack of Living Wage

A living wage is defined as “a wage sufficient to provide the necessities and comforts essential to an acceptable standard of living, and provides it with some ability to deal with emergencies, without resorting to welfare or other public assistance.”

In Portland, a living wage is set for the following groups:


1 Adult
1 Adult, 1 Child
1 Adult, 2 Children

In Portland, the minimum wage is $10.25 for everyone, regardless of how much you need to live. 

One of the main causes of homelessness is that families just don’t make enough money to pay the bills. Over half the families PHFS serves have jobs. Many families work service jobs that pay minimum wage. They live paycheck to paycheck and just don’t have enough money to make ends meet. They find themselves having to choose between paying rent and paying for food or medicine for their family. Oftentimes, they choose to pay for food or medicine, and their landlords kick them out because they have not paid the rent.

You can try to stretch a budget of a low-income family to its fullest by playing Spent at http://www.playspent.org 

We encourage you to try this out!

Lack of Affordable Housing

In order for housing to be considered “affordable,” you must be paying no more than 30% of your income towards housing costs (i.e. rent or mortgage).

A minimum wage earner in Portland brings home about $1,400 a month after taxes. A family earning this much would need their rent to be no more than $420 per month to be “affordable.” The average 1-bedroom apartment in Portland costs $1,025 per month. There are few, if any, places for rent in Portland that would be considered “affordable” for a minimum wage earner. And if you were to find a place for rent for such little money each month, it is doubtful that the conditions would be safe or suitable for families with small children.

Think about how much money you pay on your mortgage each month or how much you pay in rent. Many families who are working at minimum wage jobs do not have enough money to afford the high rent and mortgage prices that our society as created.

Basically, housing costs in our society are just too expensive. Instead of building affordable housing for families and individuals experiencing homelessness, our society has a tendency of tearing down existing affordable housing and building expensive, new condominiums. Nationally, there are only 42 units of affordable housing available for every 100 low-income renters. This represents a deficit of 4.9 million units nationwide.

In Multnomah County alone, it is estimated that we have a shortage of 28,000 units of affordable housing in our community.

Learn more about affordable housing, and our community’s efforts to build more affordable housing, at the WelcomeHomeCoalition.org.

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Lack of Affordable (or any) Healthcare

Think about a time when you or a family member had pneumonia, broke an arm, or had to have your appendix removed. We tend to remember the suffering that we experienced during these episodes but also how expensive they were. Many times our insurance covers much of the cost, but we are left to pay high deductibles and co-pays that often leave us in debt for years to come.

Many families experiencing homelessness work in service jobs that don’t offer insurance and are left responsible for paying for the entirety of their medical bills on their own. Or if they do have insurance, they don’t have the money to pay those high deductibles and co-pays, much less pay for the medicine they need to get better.

When homeless families get sick or injured, oftentimes they are not able to go to a regular doctor because they don’t have insurance and they don’t have the money to pay the extremely high doctor visit fees. They tend to neglect small ailments and illnesses and hope that they just get better so that they don’t have to go to the doctor at all. A lot of times, because homeless families are out in the cold and do not have the safety and security of having a warm place to rest and get better, their illnesses get worse instead of getting better.

When things get bad enough, they go to the emergency room at the hospital. By this time, what was originally a small cold or a sprained ankle has turned into something major like pneumonia or a cartilage tear. What could have been an easy solution if a family could have gone to a doctor ends up resulting in an emergency room visit and families end up racking up thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt which negatively affects their credit and their chances of finding permanent housing in a decent neighborhood (because most landlords these days do credit checks and won’t rent to people with bad credit; many times, the only landlords who do not perform credit checks are those living in unsafe neighborhoods).

Families who are sick or injured must sometimes pay extravagant amounts of money just to get medical care that is urgent. If it costs $200 to go to the hospital, that may be $200 that family won’t have for rent that month because they had no room in their budget for extra expenses (i.e. they’re living paycheck to paycheck). These families have to make a decision: pay for their child’s urgent medical treatment or pay rent. Many times, they choose to pay for the medical treatment and thus get evicted for not paying rent.

The lack of affordable healthcare in this country puts families at risk of homelessness because it causes them to let minor ailments turn into major illnesses that then cause families to miss work or school. It also costs a great deal of money to pay for medical treatment without insurance, and families must use what little money that have to pay for medicine or medical treatment instead of paying their bills.

The toughest decision a parent will have to make is choosing between buying penicillin for her daughter who has chronic, life-threatening pneumonia or paying rent so they have a place for her daughter to rest up and get better. No family should have to make this choice.

Lack of Affordable Childcare

Another factor affecting homelessness of families is the lack of affordable childcare. We see this issue affecting families at the PHFS shelters very often. If a parent has a small child and wants to work, they need to have childcare for their child. Childcare usually costs about $700-$938 per month for one child in Portland.

If a parent is working a minimum wage job, they simply do not have that much money leftover to pay for childcare. Parents often do not have anywhere for their children to go while they work, so many parents are not able to work. Many families rely on welfare (called TANF), which provides even less money than a minimum wage job does (usually about $498 a month for a parent with one child).

Families in this situation face a difficult Catch-22: Parent doesn’t have a job but has 2 small kids. Parent must pay for childcare while they are searching for work and then while they are at work once they find employment. Parent needs a job in order to be able to pay for childcare. But the parent does not have money to pay for childcare to first go out and find a job. And if the parent even is able to find some way for the child to be cared for to find a job, the job does not pay enough money to continue paying for childcare. So the parent has to stop working to take care of the child.

Systemic Oppression and Discrimination of Communities of Color

People of color in Multnomah County disproportionately experience homelessness and poverty. This is a result of systemic oppression and discrimination that has been built into the fabric of Portland society.

Many living in the USA today think the problem of racism is over. While progress has been made, most people overestimate the impact of this progress on the lives of people of color. The sad reality is that people of color continue to hold second-class status, resulting in lesser quality of life and reduced chances for success.

According to the 2015 One Night Street & Shelter Count, conducted by the City of Portland and Multnomah County, people of color make up only 30% of Multnomah County’s total population but people of color make up 54% of Multnomah County’s population of people living in poverty. Additionally, 61% of students in our schools who experience homelessness are children of color.

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon’s Fair Housing Bus Tour explains that Oregon was founded as a “White Utopia,” and it was illegal for people of color to live in Oregon until the 1920s. Gentrification of North and Northeast Portland started in the 1940s when I-5 was built and a vibrant black community with a roaring jazz scene was torn down so Providence could build Legacy Immanuel Hospital. Racists attitudes continued into contemporary times; it was illegal for black people in Portland to own property until 1975.