Portland's streetfighter

By Joshua Cinelli
Staff writer
April 1, 2003 issue of street roots

"I believe that the time has come for people of good will to try and get out of their self-created identities and work with others."

Erik Sten
Portland Commissioner

In his seven years on Portland's City Council, Erik Sten has proven to be a staunch advocate for low income and homeless issues and a voice for the more liberal residents of Portland. He heads the Bureau of Housing and Community Development and assisted Dignity Village in becoming established. Street roots recently had a chance to pick Sten's brain about criminalization of homelessness, the peace movement and mayoral aspirations. street roots: What was your draw into the world of politics?

Erik Sten: I've always had a strong sense of social justice, that politics when practiced well can help us become a better society; locally, make Portland a better place for us all to live, no matter what our differences may be. I enjoy being in the middle of issues and trying to work with a wide variety of people.

sr: In a previous interview you said, "There are some places where we could change the system to make it more fair and more in line with common sense." What are some examples?

Sten: One example is the real estate market. Our system of providing housing works well for most of the people, but not those on low or fixed incomes and those looking to buy their first home. I think that could be changed with very little negative impact and great economic and social gain. If we had a small tax on real estate transactions that was then reinvested into the delivery of affordable housing, we could fill a large part of the gap while creating jobs. That's a structural, common sense solution to making our market system more fair and effective for everyone.

sr: What was the response you received after the peace resolution you presented failed to pass a council vote?

Sten: Disappointment that it failed, and appreciation that I tried. Though I wish my colleagues would have supported the measure, it was the right thing to do. Now is not the time for silence.

sr: What do you think about the effectiveness of the peace movement?

Sten: I am proud to be associated with it, and believe that it is having a real impact. The peace movement has forced the administration to work more closely with the U.N. than it would have otherwise. It has also provided many people like myself who have deep concerns about the potential for conflict with a sense that we are not alone, that others share our concerns. It is important in difficult times for the community to be able to pull together and provide moral and emotional support for each other.

sr: How do you respond to those who call you a "weak-kneed liberal"?

Sten: There's nothing weak about trying to build a more inclusive, just society. In fact, it takes strength. I do, however, believe that the time has come for people of good will to try and get out of their self-created identities and work with others. My goal is to work and learn from people of all political persuasions while staying true to my core values. The new solutions that we need will come from new coalitions and thinking.

sr: When Dignity Village came into being, there was a rosier economic outlook. Is the continued support becoming a more difficult sell to others on the council?

Sten: I don't think so. Despite all the political rhetoric on all sides, Dignity Village has lived up to its agreements with the city and me and provided one option for people in need. Despite my admiration for their efforts, the city has not funded the Village. For it to succeed, it needs to stay true to its independent mission. In this recession, the government has even less resources, so I think the case for alternative community-driven choices is even stronger. Dignity Village is not a substitute for the other efforts in this community. It is simply a group of people trying their own approach to solving their problems, and I support them.

sr: As the number of houseless on the streets prepares to inflate dramatically, how do you address the concern that there are not nearly enough services to accommodate and treat those presently houseless?

Sten: I agree that there are not enough services and have devoted much of my life to fighting for more. At the same time that we fight for more, we must make sure that the dollars we do have are being used as effectively as possible. With that in mind, I directed the Bureau of Housing and Community Development to find every scrap of funding in its budget to support emergency needs in the community. We are going to do everything we can to fill funding gaps as they emerge. As we fight to get through these very tough times, I hope that we can push ourselves to look for bigger solutions. Sometimes, crisis is a motivation for changing our behavior. I hope as a society we can use the pain we are feeling now to find better and more lasting solutions. That has happened recently with school funding. Perhaps we can do it for housing and homeless services as well.

sr: In your role with the Bureau of Housing and Community Development, what is in the works to supply low income housing on a tight timeline?

Sten: It is extremely difficult to supply low-income housing on tight timeline. The financing and development process takes time. As I stated before, the bureau worked hard to identify resources to preserve low-income housing immediately, so our problems don't get worse, or get less worse than they otherwise would have. That said, the city is funding the development of several projects that include low-income housing. The most recently completed project is the St. Francis project next to the Safeway downtown. We are also trying to come up with emergency funds to keep existing projects open. In the long term, I believe the real estate transfer tax is our best answer. To institute it, we will need authorization from the state Legislature, which has been an uphill fight so far.

sr: What is your personal view on the anti-camping and the sit-stand-lie laws?

Sten: I don't think that allowing camping is the answer to the market's failure to provide an adequate supply of low-income housing. We can do better than that. Criminalizing homelessness on the other hand is immoral and impractical. Portland has a history of finding ways to get disparate interests to work together to find solutions. I don't support the sit-lie ordinance, and have supported the anti-camping ordinance if it is enforced in a humane way. At this point, I don't think we have the mix of laws and services anywhere near right. I am working with Sisters of the Road and others to involve homeless people in trying to come up with better approaches. It is important that the police remain part of this dialogue as well.

sr: What is your relationship with the Portland Business Alliance?

Sten: It has been up and down. I have good relations with many of the members, and know them to be community-minded. At the same time, I have been publicly and loudly opposed to many of their priorities and policy approaches. The business group that immediately preceded the business alliance, the Association for Portland Progress, provided leadership that dramatically improved the homeless youth system. The new leadership at the business alliance made a strategic decision to pick a fight with the city. I am interested in rebuilding partnerships, but unwilling to agree with their current approach in order to get there.

sr: In your opinion, what is a model city Portland should look to follow by example?

Sten: There are good models literally all over the world, though one city does not leap to mind. There is growing national consensus around the "Housing First" model. The Housing First model calls for aligning public resources to produce supportive housing. Basically that means finding ways to better coordinate county-funded programs like mental health programs with city-funded housing programs to get people into housing as soon as possible. The facts are pretty staggering a houseless person that ends up in the hospital due to a mental health crisis costs the community exponentially more than what providing housing with mental health services would. Not only is housing cheaper than treating crises, but also it is much more safe and less agonizing for the individuals involved and the community at large.

sr: With the ongoing financial crisis, How do we ensure to keep Portland "Portland"?

Sten: We need to be bold and creative and use the crisis to change the things that got us here. People also need to step up to help, so if you are reading this and have time and/or skills to volunteer, I'm sure street roots would be willing to help you find a meaningful way to contribute.

sr: Have you ever spent a night in a shelter to see what they are like?

Sten: No. I have visited all of our shelters.

sr: Who have been the three biggest influences on your life?

Sten: My wife, Marnie; Gretchen Kafoury; and all of the many writers who have helped us imagine a better world.

sr: Any mayoral ambitions?

Sten: Yes.