Young people grow up understanding that having people experiencing homelessness in their city is simply a fact of life. It’s a sad reality. The truth is mass homelessness hasn’t always existed in American cities.
Saying that, it exists today and has become a normal part of life for many people living and working in American cities. Portland is no different. People are frustrated.
Compassion fatigue is real. People believe homelessness can’t be solved. They’ve given up on the idea that government can do anything to stop people from sleeping on our streets.
Trying to convince people that we are being successful at housing people is a never-ending saga. It’s true that we have collectively been able to accomplish great things given our circumstances. Sadly, it still doesn’t change the fact that there’s a hole in the bucket.
Given the fact that we’re facing massive state and federal budget cuts — many nonprofits and others are preparing for the storm of our lives. We understand the clear reality that if many of the programs that were already underfunded on the homeless and housing front are completely stripped back, we will be facing unprecedented homelessness.
Some would argue that we’re on the verge of facing a new era of increased enforcement of homeless camps and new investments in massive shelters — in many ways reverting back to a place in the 1980s when the only answer to modern-day homelessness was just that — the criminal justice system and more shelter beds.
It led to an era where instead of investing in housing stock for low-income people we started to build an entire system of homeless services that worked not to solve the housing crisis, but instead to simply manage the problem.
What to do?
Local communities have always grappled with how to plan long term while also navigating the complexities of having thousands of people living on our streets. There’s no question that we need to maintain and increase our investments in affordable housing. In the meantime, if I could wave a magic wand, this is what I think could be done to help bridge the gap between our homeless neighbors and the larger public:
• First, we must start investing in more programs that create income for people on the streets — especially programs that show real results helping solve the problems that exist. I’m referring to a trash pick-up service for people on the streets.
It’s my opinion that people don’t see homeless people as the problem. They see trash as the problem. An investment to provide outreach and trash pick-up would generate enormous amount of goodwill, help clean up our natural areas and give people on the streets income. It’s not rocket science.
• Second, we need to continue to give organizations like the Village Coalition, who are working with homeless camps, the resources they need to be successful.
We more or less starve groups trying to actually organize homeless camps. Turf wars between nonprofits, personalities and larger political agendas get in the way of actually just doing what’s right. There doesn’t need to be a whole lot of bureaucracy in creating a handful of positions for people to help work with people on the streets to maintain safe camps. Again, we’re not talking rocket science.
• Lastly, working with government and the private sector, we must find a way to create more income opportunities for people. We live in a world of sharing economies, a tech-boom and a city that is working to build a green infrastructure for decades to come. There has to be a way to capture these intersections and give people the opportunity to contribute to making Portland the city that works for everyone.
The reality is homelessness on the street is going to get worse before it’s going to get better, especially under this current White House administration. If we aren’t getting ahead of the curve and offering as many harm-reduction approaches as possible, it’s going to continue to drive a wedge into helping people get off the streets and maintaining political will to end people’s homelessness.
I loathe the idea of ever fighting over 12-foot square slab of concrete, increased law enforcement strategies and creating more shelter beds because we feel like there’s no other options. It’s a strategy that isn’t any more sophisticated than the approaches used in centuries past. Yes, centuries.
We can continue to build toward the resources needed to both give people on the streets the best tools available given their circumstances and continuing to chip away at creating more affordable housing. It’s now or never. The storm is lurking on the horizon and will hit us soon enough.
Israel Bayer is the executive director of Street Roots. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @israelbayer