When you’re on your way to Portland, one of the things you hear a lot about is the housing crisis. It’s almost impossible to pin down when it began, especially considering that it impacted different communities at different times and with different intensities. Most people can agree, however, that it really hit its peak when it began to affect the white working class population of Portland just a couple of years ago. That’s when it began to be reported and publicized anyways. However, this crisis has been plaguing the city of Portland and the state of Oregon for years beyond its first appearances in mainstream media. The city has been coping with a housing crisis for at least 20 years now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better anytime soon.
This is one of the huge issues that my partner organization is trying to tackle. 1,000 Friends of Oregon is a land use planning organization. Land use planning probably sounds like it’s complicated to you–and it is, only getting more messy the more you look. It is about writing policies that govern who gets to use what land and how that land is to be used. It involves things like the zoning for houses to decide whether developers can build a duplex in a house to fit more people. Land use also regulates farmers and forest lands. If I haven’t already made it clear, land use covers a wide variety of topics. For people in the office, that mostly means reading through a lot of policy and deciding how it will affect people on the ground.
That research work in the office becomes a lot more significant after you see the “people on the ground”. It’s hard to conceptualize what a “gap of 40,000 units between the existing population and existing units” looks like when you read it on a piece of paper. It hits you in the face a lot harder when you’re playing Go Fish with someone forced out of one of those units because someone else could afford to pay more rent.
Operation Nightwatch gave me the opportunity to have that experience, and it was depressing. It made me sad, and it made me mad. More importantly, it made me care. I had been caring about my internship in the abstract way of anyone who has never looked at the problem of homelessness and saw the faces of homeless people. I had cared about doing service work because it was the “good thing” and the “right thing” to do, without truly understanding the impacts of the problem I was studying. Operation Nightwatch allowed me to wipe away the theoretical aspects of the work that my organization does. Now I see just how important it is. A gap of 40,000 units between existing population and existing units isn’t just some numbers thrown onto a page. It’s more than 40,000 people living on the streets. It’s a crisis.