On a sunny fall morning, over 90 regional natural resource managers, social workers, and advocates for unhoused people gathered in Portland around a pressing challenge: How can we do a better job supporting unhoused people and sustaining our natural areas?
Why do unhoused people shelter in natural areas? Turns out there are a lot of reasons.
Houselessness is rapidly becoming a priority topic for parks and natural area managers in both urban and rural areas in the West, from Seattle to San Diego. While attendees at our October 23 event were drawn largely from the tri-county Portland metro region, people traveled from as far north as Olympia, as far south as Springfield, as far west as Seaside, and as far east as Corbett to learn about positive and compassionate ways of engaging unhoused people who are sheltering in natural areas.
Why use the word “unhoused” or “houseless” as opposed to “homeless”? Ibrahim Mubarak, from Right to Survive, explains that it is about dignity. “Home” is a loaded term. If “home is where the heart is,” where does that leave unhoused people? Unhoused individuals are loving, caring, and kind, and many would jump at a chance for stable and safe housing. These individuals and families do not lack heart, they simply do not currently have a roof over their heads. We say “unhoused” to avoid imposing further judgement on people whose circumstances we may not understand.
The lack of affordable housing and access to services that has pushed unhoused people into natural areas is not going to change any time soon. Natural resource professionals have suddenly been placed on the front lines of a social crisis without receiving the resources, support, and training they need. Our workshop marked one small step toward changing that.
In the words of Robert Spurlock, senior regional planner with Metro Parks and Nature, the event “exceeded my expectations. As a representative of a land management agency, I had been feeling a sense of urgency around unhoused people living in natural areas. This event was an important first step in preparing land managers for the challenges of working with people experiencing houselessness. Being introduced to the concept of Trauma Informed Care was, for me, one of the most valuable parts of the workshop. There was clearly a lot of enthusiasm in the room for continuing the conversation.”
Conservation professionals and advocates for unhoused people have a lot in common: both groups tend to be scrappy, committed, passionate, and are used to operating in contexts of limited resources and daunting needs. Unhoused people often lack basic access to fundamental services such as clean water, restrooms, shelter, and health services. People can be exposed to needles, human waste, garbage, and aggressive animals. The outbreak of Hepatitis A in Southern California is a wake-up call that we need to invest more in basic services. The visibility of these issues puts tremendous public pressure on natural resource managers and threatens public support for trails and natural areas.
Why Are We Facing This Crisis?
In 1933, it’s estimated that more than 1 million people were unhoused. The Federal Government responded with jobs and affordable housing programs, social security and other safety net programs.
By the end of World War II in 1945, street homelessness was largely nonexistent in America. From the 1940s up until the 1970s, housing continued to be a priority for the federal government.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that we started to see hundreds of thousands of people sleeping in doorways and under bridges. That’s when our federal government began to dismantle social programs designed to assist the poor, most significantly the federal funding for affordable housing production.
From 1978 to 1983, the Federal Housing Administration’s budget shrank from $83 billion to $18 billion. This loss of $64 billion is where the emergence of mass shelters in America began.
Those federal cuts have never been restored. The result is local communities continuing to carry the weight of what was once a federal responsibility. Modern day homelessness in America continues, with more federal cuts to housing looming.
How Trauma Informed Care Fits In
Trauma is pervasive, and its impacts are broad, deep and life shaping. We know that trauma differentially affects the more vulnerable, and that it affects how people approach services and service providers, including natural resource professionals. By understanding the science and implications of trauma, we can work to reshape our institutions and behaviors to work for positive change. Lessons can be implemented immediately and can be transformative.
Paula Gagnon, urban land steward with The Wetlands Conservancy, says, “I just spent the morning doing annual monitoring with a student who spent 3 years living on the streets and in homeless camps as a meth addict. His story came out after I told him about what I’d learned about trauma-informed care for houseless persons [at last week’s training], while we cleaned up yet another abandoned campsite. He shared a lot about his life on the streets, the insight he had about other folks living there, and his plans and dreams to be an environmental educator in the future. He was a living example of the textbook story of adverse childhood experiences, addiction, and homelessness. It was quite extraordinary to spend the morning with him, particularly given the constellation of experiences I’ve had during the past several weeks learning about and addressing homelessness. I’d recommend taking him up on his offer to volunteer any time.”
A key goal of this training was to elevate the simple fact that unhoused people are people. They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and friends. They are disproportionately veterans, Native Americans, and African Americans. They deserve our services and can be our allies in creating a more equitable and livable region.
Natural resource professionals are often in the position of needing to share information with the public, including unhoused people. Research indicates that successful communications are most likely when they inspire hope for change, and strengthen relationships. We can do this through very small actions. Techniques like Ask-Offer-Ask help us better navigate power dynamics and use empathy in our interactions—with measurable results.
Ask what they already know.
Ask permission to provide new information.
Offer the information.
Ask what they think.
From Multnomah County Department of County Human Services’ “Assertive Engagement” training
We are working to provide key slides and other supporting materials as a reference source for attendees.
This was a pilot, and we received a lot of great feedback. We will reflect on that and modify content for possible future workshops.
Continue conversations with both natural resource professionals and unhoused people to see what they need and think. If you’d like to hear about upcoming events/conversations, please email Kathleen (Kas) Guillozet at email@example.com.
Other things we are discussing:
We are working to identify more ways to strengthen links between natural resource professionals and social service providers throughout the region.
We want to help operationalize some of the best practices we identified in our event—make more explicit what signage could look like, how communications could be structured, what new practices and partnership might be piloted.
Spread the word to policymakers. We need more support to do this effectively. The unhoused people who are vulnerable and need our support, and the natural areas we have worked so hard to protect and steward, are too important to let the status quo persist.
Let’s get some projects going on the ground: creative waste management, stewardship engagement, more signage to protect critical spaces, provision of restrooms and other basic needs.
Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Street Roots, Trauma Informed Oregon, Multnomah County, JOIN, Right to Survive, Portland Harbor Community Coalition, Willamette Riverkeeper, Solid Ground Consulting and Sitka Technology Group
Kathleen (Kas) Guillozet works at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, where she directs the Willamette Model Watersheds Program and leads other basin-wide efforts related to monitoring, peer-to-peer learning, and knowledge sharing. She has a background in forestry and social science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.