Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Is This The World We Created? Part 2

From 30,000 feet, the city hides many blemishes. On the ground, not so much.

by Gregory Saville

In my last blog Is This The World We Created? I discussed the growing problem of street homelessness in cities around the world. I presented facts and listed some responses. Most of those responses use a continuum of care in which people who are homeless must climb a staircase of supports with housing at the top as the final step.

Perhaps that is wrong? Maybe it should be the other way around in which care follows housing as in the Housing First program?


While there is not necessarily a connection between homelessness and crime, the public makes the crime/homelessness connection. Take for example recent media comments by a British Columbia citizen group Save Our Streets:

“Drug addictions and drug trade, mental health challenges, law enforcement, judicial reform, homelessness, are all factors…while governments have a long history of announcing policies and programs meant to respond to these issues, the desired results have not been realized.”

So in the mind of the public it seems one issue relates to another. Further, there is growing discontent that current government programs are ineffective at solving the problem, a view supported by some of the research I discussed in the last blog. What can be done?


In Canada and the U.S., we have homeless rates of .8 and 1.7 per thousand people respectively. It’s much worse in other European countries. 

What would it be like if we could reduce that to 0.1 of the total population? In other words, in the U.S. over 600,000 people live without shelter or food each night. If we cut that to 0.1 we could virtually eliminate most of the homelessness in our cities. 

Why 0.1? Because it has already been done in Finland.

The video above explains how the country of Finland used a modified and expanded version of the Homes First program to accomplish precisely this result. Finland’s success is not based on a staircase, but rather by starting with housing and then adding intensive and sustained supports later.


Of course, this is not a simple proposition and there are many walls in the way. 

First, the Finnish response is not simply to house people but rather to provide intensive, and sustained, services immediately upon housing people. When the city of Medicine Hat, Canada tried the Housing First method they had initial success. Sadly, they did not follow up with the intensive and sustained servicing that was available in Finland. Thus, five months after housing people, the problems and homeless rates returned.

Then there is the city of Wheat Ridge, Colorado. They shut down homes for the homeless in motels due to ongoing crime concerns, thereby forcing those residents back onto the street.

Clearly, the Finns understood the importance of intensive and sustained in-home support (in-house security, substance abuse counselling, mental health services, financial support, etc). They understood what would happen without that support.


Finally, there is the issue of cost. This is not a trivial obstacle. However, as Charles Marohn reveals in his book Strong Towns, there is already tremendous wasteful municipal spending on zero rate-of-return municipal projects. 

I made this point 15 years ago in my blog Give me a $1,184 inch…and I’ll make me a mile. In that blog, I unpacked a $2.67 billion highway connector project in Houston that cost $75 million per mile, or $1,184 per inch (in a city that already had between 14,000 to 30,000 homeless people). 

Just imagine... giving up a single mile of that roadway connector could create over $75 million for homes. And since former SafeGrowth blogger Tod Schneider tells us they have developed Conestoga Huts for homeless people that cost $1,500 each, that means a single mile of Houston’s connector could free up over 50,000 homes, far more than enough to house every single homeless person in Houston. 

This back-of-envelope (and admittedly simple) calculation ignores many other more sophisticated ways to make enhanced Housing First a reality. It also ignores other walls, like figuring out where to locate those small homes without triggering the ire of the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd (a crowd that, incidentally, is already being encroached on by uncontrolled tent cities and unsanitary encampments).

And while we are making those calculations, let’s remember how living without a home or food can turn into a horror show, as this blog has documented in the past when some Denver residents without homes were attacked by flash-bomb grenades

Photos of injuries sustained by Molly during a flash-bang grenade attack - a crime still unsolved

Surely we can create a better world for those most in need.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

"Is This The World We Created" - Homelessness in 2024


City streets and laneways are cold, dangerous, and lonely places to live

by Gregory Saville

I recently chastised a colleague for using uncouth and demeaning terms to describe the unhoused. His view is that homelessness is a selfish and personal choice to avoid responsibility. His views are shared by many and perhaps that is not surprising considering the maze people must thread along public sidewalks or parks filled with used needles, unhygienic conditions, vandalism, unruly behavior and, sometimes, aggressive threats. No one wants to feel unsafe walking on the street; no one wants their property stolen or their loved ones threatened.

I understand the frustration. I understand it even though people who are unhoused are at a much higher risk of violence from each other, than passers-by are at risk from homeless people

I understand it because we have heard the same story in neighborhoods everywhere we deliver SafeGrowth, from Vancouver, BC, and Portland, Oregon, to northern Canada and cities across California. The story is the same; increasing numbers of the unhoused, out-of-control toxic street drugs, and mental illness.

Waiting for a Prince George, BC safe injection site to open in the morning

For decades, I have had personal and professional experience with those living on the street. In all that time, I have yet to find a single person who willingly gave up a roof over their head and food in their belly and instead chose a difficult life on the street, being cold at night, suffering a high risk of violence, and having little food. 

With sanitary, safe, and sheltered choices, every one of those people I have known or have spoken to, chooses that option over the street. The obstacles they face have more do to with addiction, mental illness, or debilitating poverty.

And yet ignorant views arise and indifference abounds. As the rock band Queen sang at the 1985 Live Aid concert, we must ask: "Is This The World We Created?"  

Moccasin Flats homeless tent city in Prince George, BC

An attempt to set up a community garden for unhoused people in Prince George, BC

Homelessness emerges from a toxic formula of poverty, unaffordable housing, drug abuse, and mental illness. Of those, the Opioid Crisis triggers the greatest harm. Thousands die on the streets each year from Opioids, particularly fentanyl. 

Statistica reports that in the U.S. fentanyl and related drug overdoses on the street resulted in 70,000 dead in 2021 alone (up from 2,600 in 2011). Clearly, while homelessness has been with us for ages, street drug overdoses pose a major public health catastrophe. 


There is no shortage of responses to homelessness, including substance abuse tactics. In this blog we have been investigating the problem, and reporting on mitigation methods, for over 15 years. We have written dozens of posts on the topic of homelessness. 

Last summer I wrote about a harm reduction safe injection program in Prince George, British Columbia. That community continues to struggle with ineffective responses. In Beth Dufek’s last blog, she wrote about our SafeGrowth training of another response case - the Portland’s TriMet Safety Response team on the Portland transportation system

Here are others:

  • 2021 – Tod Schneider blogged about community-supported shelters in Oregon
  • 2020 – SafeGrowth advocate Jon Munn wrote about homelessness in Victoria, BC’s Topaz Park during COVID
  • 2019 – I blogged on inaccurate media reporting of Seattle’s homeless problem compared to Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • 2018 – A blog on the words and poetry of homeless people in Toronto
  • 2017 – Reducing homelessness in Australia Part 1 and Part 2
  • 2010 – Colorado, Springs, Colorado’s police department response to homelessness 

Most of those blogs emerged from our SafeGrowth work on homelessness, livability, and crime prevention over the past few decades. We also co-wrote the International CPTED Association’s White Paper on homelessness

All these years later, the problem worsens!

Almost invisible, almost forgotten, a woman sleeps under an overpass


Global homeless rates are pretty horrible.

Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Honduras, all have some of the worst homeless rates in the world. In Nigeria, Egypt, and DR Congo alone, there are more homeless people than the entire population of California (over 40 million). 

In the America’s, the majority of homeless people live in the U.S. (580,000) and Mexico (456,000). But raw numbers tell us only part of the larger picture. We need to calculate rates per population to compare apples to apples. When we do that, even with the shoddy state of homelessness statistics, the picture is bleak. 

Most governments use “point-in-time” counts of homeless people and they have different categories for shelter occupants, temporary and chronic homeless, and so forth. The numbers don’t always line up. Also, the data are notoriously vulnerable to politics. Some countries, such as China and Japan, offer up very suspect data that cannot be verified and are therefore useless.

Homeless encampment in Bridgetown, Barbados

In spite of all these limitations, we can piece together a rough image based on the World Population Review, and various data sources like Canada’s point-in-time counts (Canada’s, in particular, is probably under-reported).  

Here is the ugly picture from street homeless statistics 2022-2023, with the highest rates of homelessness to the lowest for selected countries.

It might be obvious that a very poor country like Guatemala has such a high homeless rate, but how is it that wealthy countries like the UK, France, and Australia are doing so poorly? Perhaps Australia’s warmer weather inflates their point-of-time counts? 

Australia’s news outlets report that the rates are worsening every year and 3 states suffer the worst – Queensland, Western Australia, and New South Wales. According to the Guardian newspaper, in Australia last year “demand for homelessness services rose 7.5% across Australia amid soaring rents and record low vacancy rates.”

Hostile architecture to deter the unhoused from sitting in front of
a Marylin Monroe statue in Palm Springs, California


What of the UK and France? 

We hear much about European illegal immigration inflating homeless numbers, but if that is true, why is Germany’s rate so much lower? In the U.S., the political classes blame illegal immigration for homelessness increases. Yet, those arguments fall apart when you compare homeless rates with those of some of Europe’s largest countries.

Is illegal immigration really so much worse in those European countries? Is the correlation between illegal immigration and homelessness just nonsense? 

Canada might look good from a global perspective, but 35,000 homeless people on the street each night is nothing to brag about. In addition, we know of the link between homelessness and drug overdoses, and Canada lost over 8,000 people last year to street opioid overdoses. Over the past 7 years, according to one source, the toll is over 40,000 dead - each one of them is a son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, or grandparent. Each one, to at least somebody, is a friend, now gone.

And it is getting worse.

Next blog – What can be done? Does anything work?

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Who's on call in Portland? TriMet's Safety Response Team - Part 2

Portland, Oregon. Photo by Adam Blank on Unsplash

Beth Dufek is a writer and marketing strategist for clients who are improving the built environment. She runs her own consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest. Previously she worked with the LISC non-profit organization, facilitated SafeGrowth projects in Milwaukee, and later worked with neighborhood groups in Seattle, Washington. She was named one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 for her commitment to civic engagement and her ability to build trust in communities. As a member of the SafeGrowth Network, she teaches SafeGrowth in cities across the U.S. This is Beth’s second blog on responding to people in crisis on the street.

Over the past few years, we have provided SafeGrowth training with TriMet – the bus, light rail, and commuter rail service provider of Portland, Oregon. In my previous Part 1 blog, I promised to write about the Tri-Met Safety Response Team (SRT). I continue to be impressed with their much-needed rider outreach in Portland, the place I now call home.

TriMet's SRT group - January 2023 
Photo courtesy of TriMet


TriMet’s Board approved $1.8M in November 2020 for the Reimagine Public Safety initiative to reshape safety and security by taking a “community engagement first” approach. That was right around the time TriMet reached out to Greg Saville and SafeGrowth for help. In November 2021 twenty TriMet safety, security, and maintenance staff participated in the agency’s first SafeGrowth training. Tom Hunt, Safety Response Manager for TriMet, was a participant. 

Tom has been in law enforcement and community safety in the area for over 30 years. He told me Portland’s opioid crisis has been around for decades. It was manageable (if that is even possible) when smaller mental health crisis support sites were scattered throughout the city. In the mid-2000s, due to a variety of factors (mostly financial, maybe political), the healthcare system consolidated by closing satellite crisis and recovery centers, making it more difficult for people to get help. 

It was around that time TriMet started to experience an increase in “non-destination” riders, those who use the transit system - vehicles and transit stops - not so much for transportation, but for shelter and yes, to buy, sell, and take illegal substances. It got worse during the COVID pandemic.

SRT patrolling the transit system, January 2023
Photo courtesy of TriMet


Reimagine Public Safety launched the Safety Response pilot program by training seven SRT members who started riding the system in September 2021 to reach riders in need or distress. It became a permanent TriMet Safety & Security program in July 2023. 

The SRT works alongside the agency’s dedicated security team to respond to calls and to build relationships with frequent riders. 

At the time of this post, the SRT has 57 members. They find and support riders and community members who are experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, and drug and alcohol addiction. By engaging with riders, they can discourage inappropriate and illegal behavior and provide referrals for housing and support services. 


Many people in their cars may take a quick glance at a bus at a stoplight and see a few people looking at their phones or riders carrying an unusual amount of stuff, and some may be sleeping. That may be all you see, but it’s different for the SRT.

The SRT members see much of what media outlets push out about Portland: open-air drug markets and drug use, scores of unhoused people, and other concerns. I’m not denying this is present but, in my experience, Portland also has a spirit of perseverance. 

In our SafeGrowth class, one SRT participant let us know, “SRT members have had hands on a dead body when we were sadly unsuccessful in saving their life after an overdose.” It still gives me chills. And yet, I frequently see SRT members engaging with riders who others might ignore. I’ve become a bit of a fan girl, pointing out SRT members to friends with excitement. They are compassionate and genuinely proud of their work.

I’m reminded of a new local campaign: Portland is what we make it. TriMet makes Portland resilient.


It’s no wonder TriMet has expanded the program, won awards, and is respected among its peers.

According to Tom, TriMet co-founded the National Transit and Vulnerable Population Working Group, a national group of transit agencies that meet monthly to share information and develop best practices. Austin, San Francisco, Denver, and Los Angeles transit agency staff are among its members. Aaron Gordon wrote in Vice that public transit has become the last safety net in America.

Denver's Union Station platform
Photo by Francisco B on Unsplash

SRT was also featured in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration Newsletter for “developing community-based programs that supplement transit security officers and enhance the rider experience.”  

Additionally, TriMet won an APTA 2023 Rail Safety, Security, and Emergency Management Gold Award for “reimagining their security approach and moving to multifaceted, multi-tiered security teams and a more strategic approach.”


But wait, there’s more. I have been invited to ride with the SRT. 

Stay tuned!