As the Economy Worsens, County Administered ‘Poor Farms’ Would Again Make Good Sense

September 22, 2009

Oregon’s Unemployment Numbers Approach a Quarter Million; Over 10,000 People in the Portland Metro Area are Now Without Shelter

Homeless, Don't Steal, Drug, Drinkthere are thousands of honest, ready-to-work, first-time homeless people

Fall is here already, and the rainy season is just around the corner. Well over 120,000 people are now unemployed in the Portland metro area. Statewide the number is over 243,000.

Unemployment benefits are expiring for Oregonians at the rate of about 500 households per month. Many of these working class people will end up on the streets within a few months afterward, many of them with families in tow.

A higher percentage of Oregonians are now without shelter than in any other U.S. state.

The best current estimates are that at least 7000 and as many as 10,000 people here in the Portland metro area now have no place to call home. Most are long-time Portlanders. There are at least as many more (20,000 +) with precarious or temporary of these are accommodations.

The number of officially homeless people statewide is by now well over 20,000, at least half of which are children. Again, this number is at least  doubled if you count those whose housing is only temporary/ short term.  Many reputable social workers and social scientists insist that these numbers, as high as they are, badly understate the problem.–national_law_center_on_ho

National Debt

A Jobless Recovery is Forecast, and Systemic Problems are Severe

Many seem convinced that federal stimulus spending will “get our economy moving again.”  No doubt, that is helping, but it will not be enough. According to the best economists, because of the risks of hyperinflation, federal stimulus funding will be inadequate to create anywhere near enough jobs for the nearly quarter of a million Oregonians who are now unemployed. Nationally, our systemic problems are serious.

While the economy may begin looking better for some, economic forecasters generally agree that we should expect a jobless recovery at best. Experts are also forecasting that Social Security will go into the red next year, adding further to the national debt.

Therefore, we believe that we must try to economically (re-) establish a local social ‘safety net’ for our poorer neighbors.

A local social ‘safety net’ sounds unaffordable unless you realize that most of our newly homeless neighbors are quite capable of working and caring for themselves. We just need to facilitate this for a large number of people. Our local governments can do this – if only they will cooperate sufficiently.

Most of the newly homeless have good work histories. Most would gladly work if work were offered.

After conducting about 400 interviews with homeless individuals in Portland since March of this year, the G.R.O.W.S. Committee has compiled informal data which suggests that a majority of the people who are homeless today in the Portland area are newly homeless, and seeking work.  The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is that of the newly homeless.

educated homeless everywhere

The working class are taking it on the chin in this economic downturn. There are simply too few jobs to go around, and the ‘average’ homeless person today is someone who until recently had been working. Most of them are high-functioning, honest, but lacking options.

Many thousands more are yet “just one paycheck away from the streets.”

There are many more homeless among us than meet the eye. Many do their best to stay clean, and to NOT appear homeless.hidden homless

Most of the homeless try to remain out of public view, because Portland’s ordinances prohibit camping in the city, even for those with no place to go.

Many of the newly homeless sleep in their cars, some in garages, others under bridges, or in doorways. Many are in the woods.

Tens of thousands more are drifting from couch to couch, hoping that family, friends or lovers will continue to be supportive.

For Thousands, the “Choice” to Stay in the City is a Matter of Eating Today or Not

homeless dining

Most of these people do not know how to find food outside of the city’s charitable meal programs, so they are reluctant to travel too far out. It is a matter of eating or not. Yet currently they literally have no right to pitch a tent (or place a covering over themselves) while they sleep anywhere within the City limits.

This anti-camping law is now under legal challenge by the Oregon Law Center, but a ruling is still many months away.

Public health and safety are increasingly at risk.

With such a large and fast growing homeless population locally, there inevitably comes a growing likelihood of crime and disease in the general population. Public health and safety are increasingly at risk. Epidemics are more likely to happen, and to linger.

homless, ill.

The suffering of seven to ten thousand people caught out in the rain day and night will surely affect the well being of each of us.


When the rainy season begins, there will be unprecedented suffering among us here in the Portland metro. 

This is a growing emergency.

The G.R.O.W.S. Committee has therefore come to believe that our local governments must act as soon as possible to establish local work and training programs with on-site shelter. Time is not on our side in this.

Thousands of newly homeless people are either not qualified for government housing assistance, or languishing on two-year-long waiting lists.

The current approach of local government is to focus primarily on ending ‘chronic‘ homelessness. For most of those helped, there is little to no emphasis on work programs or self-support. Many are low functioning and this is understandable. The Coordinating Committee to End Homelessness (CCEH) is charged with carrying out the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.

The stated mission of the CCEH is to help end chronic homelessness. This is a good idea because elements within this population are responsible for a disproportionately high amount of police calls and emergency medical treatment.

However, this approach – focusing primarily on the chronically homeless – is limited in its effectiveness, in that a shrinking percentage of homeless people are being helped in today’s economy.  This approach is also very expensive, involving H.U.D. funding and program requirements tying most housing assistance to ongoing case management.

Those who are not mentally ill, nor addicted, nor pregnant, nor in need of protection from a spouse, nor low-functioning, nor otherwise prone to chronic homelessness  are generally turned away or de-prioritized. Housing assistance waiting lists are at least two years long. Many higher functioning individuals desperately misrepresent their circumstances to qualify as ‘chronic’ or high risk — in order to be moved up on the lists.

Shelters are also forced to turn people away on a daily basis, especially during the rainy season. There are too few shelter spaces.  There are too many people being turned away.

It’s time for local governments to re-double their efforts, and focus especially on work programs which also offer shelter.

“We were dealing with mostly chronically homeless . . . While we were working on it (the Plan to End Homelessness), the world has changed.”
– Roger Nyquist, Linn County Commissioner
Not Hiring

most economists agree: "expect a jobless recovery"

The mission which has been given to our local government to help the homeless must somehow be re-focused or expanded to include the newly homeless as well.

Their needs are simpler. Most are simply asking for work so that they can again support themselves. The economy is not offering them much hope, and subsidized housing or shelter options are few.

We strongly recommend that the Portland City Council and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners take effective action as soon as possible. Among the possible logical options are:

A) to expand and bolster our CCEH so that its mission will include helping to develop work programs with shelter for larger numbers of the working-class poor,  AND

B) to set up a task force within the Mayor’s Office whose focus would be to significantly increase coordination with other metro area county and municipal governments on homelessness issues, AND

C) to develop more effective public-private partnerships for the specific purpose of giving both shelter and work/training to those who are willing to work, AND

D) to allow camping for the homeless on designated public lands as soon as possible, where tents need not be taken down daily.

It would be good if all of the city councils and county boards of commissioners across the metro area would do much the same thing.  Since Portland has the biggest influence in this mess, Portland’s city leaders should lead the way. If our elected officials are serious about protecting public health and safety (i.e., true to their oaths), they will remain open to this conversation until effective action has been taken.

The State of Oregon has its own agency for helping to end homelessness, called “The Ending Homelessness Advisory Council.” This June the State adopted its own “Ten Year Plan.” It gives money to various city and county agencies which address homelessness, and calls for greater coordination among the various county committees to end homelessness.

See, .

Work + shelter = the most productive workers.

Efforts are being made to begin staffing Oregon Workforce Development offices with ‘life coaches’ who will specifically try to get homeless people working. This sounds great, but unless shelter is a part of the deal, this will not make for the best results. It has been established that giving a homeless person a job without also offering them shelter often results in the loss of that job in a short amount of time.

homeless asleep in park

it's hard to perform well at work when...

For most, it is too difficult to perform well in a job while un-sheltered because of all of the stressing factors – from sleep loss, to bad hygiene, to chronic colds, to low self-esteem.  For someone who is flat broke, it can take many weeks or months to save up enough money to get an apartment.

Therefore, new work or training programs for the homeless should always involve at least some opportunity for affordable, basic shelter as well.

Otherwise, government efforts to place the homeless in work assignments will be less effective, and may lend themselves to exploitation by for-profit employers.



Why Not Work With Housing?

Reports have come to us that over the last few months, several homeless individuals who have received citations for offenses related to their poverty (failure to pay fines, etc.) have been complying with the courts by performing community service at the new C.R.O.P.S. acreage near Troutdale. This is the new County program started by Commissioner Jeff Cogen which grows produce for direct donation to the Food Bank.

C.R.O.P.S. is a great idea and a needed program. But think about this a moment: a homeless person makes their way by bus out to the County gardening program which is aimed at helping the poor, and works all day on the same grounds that were once our County ‘poor farm’ – within view of the same former Multnomah County Home building (the old poor farm’s residence hall, now a McMenamins luxury inn), which a couple of generations ago would have provided housing for un-sheltered people just like him.

the C.R.O.P.S. acreage, September 2009

the C.R.O.P.S. acreage, September 2009

At the end of his work day, our community service worker gets back on the bus (without pay) and goes back into town where he has to sleep in some bushes in a park, so that he can wake up the next day and have breakfast at a nearby soup kitchen. Then he’s off again to the C.R.O.P.S. program by bus, so he can stay in good standing with the law.

There’s something wrong with this situation. C.R.O.P.S. is a good program. But we must say to you, Mr. Cogen: let’s expand the program concept now, and add shelter for the workers who need it! This would be an even better way to help our poorer neighbors locally.

As our economy worsens for working people, county ‘poor farms’ would again make good sense.

G.R.O.W.S. interview data shows that a majority of the those experiencing homelessness today in Portland, if offered the opportunity, would gladly work in community gardens or on sustainable farms in order to help maintain their room and board on site. This is true of most of the newly homeless, and of a near majority of chronically homeless individuals interviewed. Especially if basic medical care could also be provided as needed, this would be a very kind alternative to life on the streets.

will work for food shelter

The term ‘poor farm’ has a stigma attached to it today. Most poor farms were phased out after WWII, as our economy boomed and welfare programs of every kind were implemented. But those welfare programs have since been significantly reduced or phased out, and the economy now has serious long-term systemic problems. We are told to expect a jobless recovery at best.

It is time to shed that stigma. It is time to let homeless individuals decide for themselves if they are willing to put up with the “shame” of living on a ‘poor farm’ —  in exchange for the dignity of shelter and self-support. Most we’ve talked to say they don’t care what it’s called as long as it means shelter!

Poor farm in Kansas, 1930's

Poor farm in Kansas, circa 1925

Local farm work programs were administered by county governments all across the U.S. for two centuries, most up until the 1950’s, in order to address chronic poverty.

Historically, county poor farms have worked well. Compassionate, responsible local governments economically saw to the needs of their poorest citizens in this way.

Josephine County Home, Grants Pass, Oregon

main residence of the 'poor farm' in Josephine County -- Grants Pass, Oregon, circa 1930


In fact, for many centuries, going back to the Commons of England, the surest and most efficient way to help those poorer members of a society during an economic downturn – those who otherwise had nowhere to turn — was to allow them to work the land, and to subsist.

Multnomah County poor farm's main residence hall housed 300 people

Multnomah County poor farm's main residence hall housed 300 people

vegetable medley

Today, most of us have become so urbanized that we have largely forgotten our agricultural roots. We are all nonetheless an agricultural people, even if one has never even gardened.

With proper teaching and supervision anyone can learn a simple, more earthy, cooperative approach. This is what we must try to do if we are to help jump start local economic development. Helping thousands of local people to better help themselves — this can again help all of us through these dark economic times.

Remembering What Has Worked . . .

After much research, the G.R.O.W.S. Committee believes strongly that direct involvement by local governments — something similar to the old county-administered ‘poor farms’ approach — is badly needed again these days. Our local governments can and should make this happen.  Charities and churches – even with government funding help – are having an increasingly difficult time, and are unable to keep up.


Pesticide Free Zone


Sustainability should be central to such farms. Low ecological impact should be the goal of every such community. Improved health and self-support would be the goals, rather than maximum  productivity.


What’s Working Elsewhere?

To our knowledge, there are as yet no farming/ training / housing communities which are directly administered by local government in the U.S.  If our local governments were to develop and administer such programs here, we would be leading the way. As well we should, seeing as how we in Oregon do currently have the highest percentage of homelessness (and third highest unemployment rate) in the whole country!

Several charities around the U.S., some with government aid, are already running highly successful farm projects which benefit the poor with food , shelter, and training.  One of the best of these programs works has long worked closely with local government. Check out The Farm at Long Island Shelter, administered by the ‘Friends of Boston’s Homeless.’ Since 1987 this organization has been helping to house, educate and transition thousands of (formerly) homeless people toward self-support. This program works closely with the Boston Public Health Commission and the  City of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission. See,–long-island

Another well run sustainable farming community for the poor is the Homeless Garden Project of Santa Cruz, CA. Residents there tend to love the place. Over the last 18 years, they have helped hundreds to leave the streets and learn valuable skills in farming, nutrition, carpentry, etc.  See,

Yet another well run, therapeutic farm program has been set up in New Hampshire specifically for homeless veterans. Veterans Victory Farm began in 2004. With the help of great case workers working alongside them, healing in a rural work setting has come to hundreds of otherwise difficult-to-help people. Endorsed by the The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, this working farm is highly therapeutic. See,


Returning To Simpler Economy

County administered poor farms have worked well for centuries. Call them something other than ‘poor farms’ of course. These days it isn’t quite accurate anyway, since we would place more emphasis on education and a new green economy. 

“Green work and training communities” would be a more appropriate term, or perhaps  just “sustainable farms with housing.” Whatever you call such programs, this is quite achievable and definitely in the public interest.

Increased inter-governmental cooperation is needed. Low cost, sustainability, and green skills training are to be emphasized.

If such sustainable farms are established on lands now held idle by our local governments, and if we employ experts from local colleges along with volunteers from local charities and the broader community, modern day ‘poor farms’ can be established at very low cost, and with high returns in terms of improved public health and public safety.

straw bail plastering

With low-cost on-site housing (e.g. straw bale, earth bag or other low cost construction), and a big emphasis on skills training for a new green economy, a modern day ‘poor farm’ would more closely resemble a eco-vocational community college.

Resident-workers could learn valuable skills as they work. After being certified in various skill sets, they will be in a better position to (re-) enter the mainstream job market. windmill going up

If other micro-business ventures were introduced to well-functioning ‘poor farm communities,’ a community might then become able to pay modest stipends or wages to its resident-workers.  For example,  government could develop public-private partnerships for the manufacture of picnic tables, or even for solar panel assembly. In cooperation with other government agencies, mobile crews could be trained up for invasive-species-removal crews or landscaping.

Revenues so generated might then go toward the development of additional ‘poor farm’ communities as needed, or be considered a return on the investment of local governments.


We believe that in this way, our local city and county governments could provide part time work for as many as 20,000 people, with as many on-site shelter spaces, in the next five years.

Such an approach need not require any more than part-time hours of resident-workers — perhaps 10 to 20 hours per week —  for residents at a well-managed farm to simply maintain their room and board. Basic medical services might also be provided locally, with primary emphasis on teaching/ encouraging basic prevention  (nutrition, exercise), and first aid.

Green ‘Skills Certification’ emphasis

Opportunities should also be offered for resident-workers to earn various skills certifications while they work. Master gardening, food processing, nutrition, first aid, carpentry, facility maintenance, or forestry might be among the practical certifications offered. This could involve supervision by staff or graduate students from participating colleges or Universities.

vinyards Such learning and certification might involve more work hours for residents than the 10 to 20 hours per week minimum asked of them for room and board.  But in this way, ‘graduation’ from these work/training communities back into the mainstream economy can be facilitated.picnic table building




Real dignity comes through opportunities for self-support.

Such opportunities for self support might be offered to as many citizens as are willing to work. As the numbers of un-sheltered citizens grows, it is increasingly in the public interest that our local leaders consider such programs as soon as possible.

Given the scale of this economic downturn, government is increasingly the only ‘stakeholder’ at the table which is big enough to effectively help so many un-sheltered local citizens.

Handouts are good, but work and green training opportunities are better! In addition to helping to grow their own healthy foods, (often lacking among the homeless), formerly homeless participants could also help to build their own shelters in these modern ‘green work/training communities.’ This has already been done to some degree at Dignity Village (which is as yet far from self-reliant). The better examples are elsewhere, mostly in California, and across the U.S. at charitably-established sustainable farms. Efficient, economic development focused compassion is a good idea in any state, especially here now.

Learning gardens

Bring in local experts (especially volunteers) in architecture, permaculture, health, and home economics to teach and supervise, and this can be done within our limited public budgets. Certification in master gardening, food processing, carpentry, and first aid might be among the training opportunities offered to resident-workers.

We encourage you to do your own research. We believe that you will come to the same conclusions that we have. Since allocated federal stimulus money will not be sufficient to create enough jobs, the economic recovery (when it comes) will be largely a ‘jobless’ one.

Under our current government-as-usual approach, hard-working charities and local churches are simply unable to keep up with this fast growing emergency. It is stressful for all. Let’s provide opportunities for people to work toward self-support. Let’s consider trying that which has worked for centuries.

Please take some action, as time is not on our side in this growing emergency.

Being without a home is so stressful that many of the newly homeless who are now ‘high-functioning,’ given enough time on the streets, may well end up in that awful ‘chronically homeless’ category. The wider costs of sickness and crime are increasing with each day. Time is not on our side while homelessness is fast increasing. With an unprecedented number of homeless people among us in Portland, our long cold rainy season is just around the corner.

Let your voices be heard! In addition to giving to local charities with programs which help the poor, please take it upon yourself to write letters to your local newspapers. Most of all, please contact your local leaders! Let’s tell them to think more simply and with greater foresight.  The voices of more people are needed, and will surely help, even if you are brief. Let’s all stay informed so that we can help to educate our local leaders, and/or choose more highly adaptive ones.

At the very least, we ask that each reader please take the time to somehow further this conversation among friends. The public emergency now unfolding among us will not be solved without much discussion in favor of green work and other self-support opportunities for the homeless.

Peace and thanks for reading,

The G.R.O.W.S. Committee



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