Putting our arms around homelessness

From The Oregonian Editorial Board, November 21, 2011

NOTE: This editorial, like Portland’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, misses an essential point: the cause of most chronic homelessness is untreated or mistreated addiction or mental illness. Until engaging and worthwhile mental and addiction health services are available on demand, ‘ending’ homelessness is unlikely.

The Occupy Portland encampment may be fading in the rearview mirror, but the five-week “occupation” did showcase one thing: homelessness.

Alcoholics, mentally ill people, drug addicts, street kids and others — some well known to police and social service agencies — were drawn to the camp in three downtown parks.

If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have imagined that the camp was a fairly benign place. Well, think again. It sure wasn’t safe for the runaways who congregated there. Tents obscured what was going on, and some tents that were clearly labeled (“safe injection” and “sexual assault response”) testified to the dangers.

“There are young people with significant developmental delays, mental illness and drug/alcohol abuse issues mingling with potentially predatory adults (and young children) in a largely unchecked environment,” Dennis Morrow, executive director of Janus Youth Programs, warned Mayor Sam Adams at one point. No rules combined with no transparency? Morrow called that “a recipe for disaster.”

In the aftermath of police dismantling Occupy, one sentiment we haven’t heard is: Wow, that was great. Let’s try this again soon. Even the core protesters complained of being swamped by myriad problems. Still, the camp raised an important question: What should this community do to help people with no place to go?

For six years, after all, Portland and Multnomah County have been working on an aggressive 10-year plan to end homelessness. The plan hasn’t solved the problem, but it has forced housing advocates to put their heads together and work smarter.

READ – Home Again – A 10-year plan to end homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County, Citizens Commission on Homelessness – December 2004
READ – 2010 Annual Report for the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness

One Night Shelter Count, 20042508 (total sheltered individuals – not including people out-of-doors)
One Night Shelter Count, 20112995 (total sheltered individuals), 7382 (total individuals, sheltered and unsheltered)
READ – An Analysis of the Data on Homelessness – May 2004 (data points have shifted slightly over the past six years – homelessness is a VERY hard statistic to pin down.)

Clearly, camping isn’t the answer. Yet even on cold nights, many in Portland are camping. Something close to 2,727 people here are homeless. That’s a snapshot of the problem as of one night last January, when advocates counted 1,718 people sleeping outside, in a car or an abandoned building.

That same night, another 1,009 people were in emergency shelters or in a motel using a voucher. Another 1,928 people would have been homeless, except that they were in transitional housing.

Emergency shelters are nothing less than lifesaving. Yet essential as shelters are, housing advocates in some ways begrudge every dollar spent on the shelter system because it’s a dollar that isn’t available for permanent housing.

In contrast, consider a dollar spent on rental assistance. Or a dollar spent helping someone find a job, so he can pay the rent. Or money spent guiding a disabled widow through red tape so she qualifies for disability or other benefits to which she’s entitled. These dollars can propel the homeless toward a home — and self-sufficiency.

So even though camping is no solution, housing advocates are looking for low-cost ways to put people up, briefly, while housing is secured for them. City Commissioner Nick Fish is looking at allowing homeless people to temporarily camp in their cars on church parking lots, for instance, if a church gives permission.

Some churches are already trying things like this, and others might be willing. Such a proposal does — and should — spark many safety questions. Churches with experience can take the lead in explaining what does and doesn’t work. But new ideas should be welcome. After Occupy Portland, this community should be brainstorming, experimenting and accelerating all of its efforts to move people into housing.

This winter, with the help of the city, the county, nonprofits and churches, Portland has the smarts and creativity to put its arms around this problem in a new way. And, in the process, put its arms around the homeless.