Susan Emmons continues to make a difference with housing advocacy

by Apr 26, 2024

Retired housing advocate Susan Emmons walks three blocks from her home in Northwest Portland and in that microcosm she sees daily reminders of the state of homelessness.

“In the early morning someone is bundled up by Walgreens,” Emmons said. “By Taco Bell five or six guys are sharing fentanyl and shooting up, with wild behavior. One of them sees me coming and says, ‘Lady, don’t be afraid.’ I tell them I’m not afraid.”

As she continues her walk she sees a woman selling Street Roots outside Fred Meyer. After being homeless for a while, this vendor is now in subsidized housing but continues to sell the paper because she needs extra money for food. A customer from Fred Meyer brings a cup of hot cocoa for her.

“This is a typical morning, but all the reports and public policy are so removed from what is going on,” Emmons said.

With a long career and a building with 144 affordable units recently named after her, Emmons can speak with some authority about homelessness in Portland. She was the executive director of Northwest Pilot Project for almost thirty years and currently serves as co-chair of the Metro Regional Oversight Committee.

“I’m impressed with the work being done with Metro’s Supportive Housing Services funds by the many organizations in Multnomah County but I’m heartbroken when I see campers in tents and I know there’s money in Multnomah County not being distributed,” Emmons said. “I think it’s a disgrace. We’re almost at the end of year three and their processes are too slow, and don’t need to be because we have experienced organizations that can use the funds right now to get people into housing.”

Emmons sees the value of Regional Long-term Rent Assistance vouchers, with successful outcomes when they were first implemented in 2019. She would like to see more vouchers put to use and believes this could be accomplished through outreach. Frontline workers who go out to encampments can make a big difference toward building trust, referring people to shelters and transitional housing, guiding them through paperwork and getting vouchers into their hands.

“When I moved to Portland to go to Lewis and Clark College in 1965 there was not a visible homelessness problem,” Emmons said. “We had single room occupancy (SROs) hotels. For $100 a month people could rent a room, making the SROs extremely affordable and accessible, with no background checks. They built the federal courthouse where two hotels had been housing people for decades. If the federal government could build the most expensive building, they could come up with money to replace those buildings.”

Some people had lived in the SROs for decades and were given one month to move when they were shut down, Emmons remembers with sadness. Although units were replaced, numbers of homeless people have increased dramatically since then and she believes the response from the city, county and state has not been adequate to meet their needs, especially with older homeless individuals. She would like to see a sense of urgency from the county commissioners in getting seniors housed.

Emmons will be seventy-seven years old this year but retirement has not slowed down her commitment. She emphasizes the importance of getting to know people who live outside and finding out their individual needs. Her advice to future generations in this field is to not only be practitioners but also advocates; to work with the system and public policy.

“From 2005 to 2011 I was asked to present a lecture to one three-hour class a year to graduate students in PSU’s School of Social Work,” Emmons recalls. “The professor who invited me wanted me to talk about why it’s important for social work practitioners to be involved as advocates to influence, shape, and affect public policy.”

Emmons has seen the impact of working with people directly on the streets in her own neighborhood. She recently met a woman who was finally helped into permanent housing with the Supportive Housing Services funds. She had initially been contacted by a worker who met her camping. In her words, “They didn’t just offer me short-term help, they walked with me through my whole journey.”

This woman shared a quote from Maya Angelou that hangs on the wall of her permanently affordable apartment. “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” 

Susan Emmons at the coast, photo by Iain Emmons

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