I have witnessed people suffering on the streets every day — all day, year after year, for the past 15 years. They are traumatized. I am traumatized.
People tell me on the streets that they are desperate to find housing. It’s one tragic story after another. They also tell me how tent cities or encampments are keeping them safe, especially for women. Folks describe to me just how important it is to have a small moment of calm in the middle of a raging storm or the hell that is homelessness. They tell me these encampments save their lives.
I also work with a lot of people in power — the politicos, the media, the bureaucrats, the strategists, the do-gooders and the affluent – who all care very deeply about the issue of homelessness. Working together, we all do our best try to capture opportunities for the collective good.
Still, on the issues of encampments, many people try to rationalize or debate why encampments or tent cities will not work. We could do so much better. The neighborhoods will hate it. It’s a bad policy decision. We just need more shelter beds and housing for people on the streets. All points that I do not disagree with.
Unfortunately, the reality is that encampments do not exist in response to a rational approach to urban planning or a policy strategy or a philosophical approach to work with the homeless. Encampments exist simply because thousands of American citizens live in absolute poverty, on our streets, in one of the wealthiest communities on the planet. They are living and breathing human beings without a safe place to call home. There are no time-outs for people on the streets. There is no walking away from the situation that is homelessness.
I use the encampments as an example because it appears that no matter how we respond to the housing crisis, our community finds itself on different ends of a perspective, debating why things can’t be achieved instead of how things can be achieved.
Imagine you were in charge of a city and you have thousands of people experiencing homelessness sleeping on sidewalks, in public parks and under bridges. Rents are skyrocketing in your city. Hundreds of baby boomers on fixed incomes are retiring by the month, and you’re short 35,000 affordable-housing units to support the very people that made your city great. What do you do? That’s the question everyone is asking.
One thing is clear. We need leadership and support from all sectors of our community. The old way of doing business isn’t working. Some would argue it never has. That’s neither here nor there today. What we need are real housing reforms and massive investments in the affordable-housing stock in our community.
First things first: Editorial boards and the business community around the city should support newly introduced legislation by the city for a construction excise tax. The tax, referred to as CET, is a 1 percent construction tax for both residential and commercial developments. It’s a small price to pay for developers given the opportunities it will create. The tax would generate millions of dollars annually for affordable housing.
So why are we making it more expensive to build housing? News flash. It’s already expensive to build housing, and the final costs for new development are already well beyond anything affordable for poor and working people. Understanding that we are in dire need of more affordable housing, we have to capture ongoing revenue on the construction boom. Beyond the construction excise tax, Portland needs deliver a housing bond on the November ballot measure. More so, Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Legislature have to deliver important legislation on no-cause evictions and ensure a massive investment in affordable housing around the state.
After all, it’s not just Portland experiencing this problem. There isn’t housing available for minimum-wage workers and elders up and down the coast, in the central valley and out on the range. It’s high times for some, and hard times for others in Oregon. To quote the great Woody Guthrie, California, or in this case Oregon, is the Garden of Eden — a place to live in and to see, but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot if you don’t have the do re mi.
Doing nothing isn’t an option. If you think it’s bad now, wait five or 10 years. It’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. It’s essential we come together as a community and work together to tackle the problem.
Israel Bayer is the executive director of Street Roots. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @israelbayer.