Is There the Political Will In Portland to End Homelessness?
By Don MacGillivray
The effects of homelessness impact most neighborhoods. In my inner eastside neighborhood we periodically have discussions about the homeless situation and the organizations that serve them. Little is ever satisfactorily resolved and the issues settle down until they surface again.
Ultimately, the homeless need better care. Everyone tries to do the best they can, but it is never enough. It is this situation within southeast Portland that generated the Homelessness Working Group (HWG).
One year ago representatives from neighborhood associations and those organizations that work with the homeless community sat down together to talk about what might be done. It became clear that a missing ingredient was public awareness and an understanding of the conditions that contribute to homelessness.
The mission of the Homelessness Working Group is to build the necessary political will to address issues of homelessness by engaging homeless community members, neighborhood associations, business associations, and other interested community residents in dialogue about the impact of homelessness on our social fabric.
The HWG developed what is called a "community conversation". Over the winter and spring the HWG conducted one hundred of these conversations. The intent is to allow the public to talk about their issues related to homelessness thereby increasing the consciousness of this deplorable situation. The HWG is identifying peoples concerns and community based solutions that deal with these problems, but all ideas are encouraged and welcome.
The information is collected and synthesized for use in a variety of ways. With this information the HWG will make recommendations about ways to address homelessness and develop ideas regarding further public involvement and education.
As one of the people who conducted a number of the conversations, several issues stand out. While these are not the most frequent, they are typical of the various opinions and ideas. This also represents some of my own interpretation. The many and varied causes of homelessness make this a very difficult problem. Every individual situation is different and often there are multiple causes. Homelessness is somewhat like cancer. It has one name, but manifests itself in many different ways.
It is often said, "the homeless want to be homeless". Who would really want to be homeless? The only people that are resigned to being homeless are those that believe they have no other options or that all the options open to them are worse than being homeless. Often their self-esteem needs to be repaired before anything else can improve. They need psychological counseling in a supportive social atmosphere.
The "deserving poor" is mentioned frequently. It is good to pick out and help those people that are "deserving" if you can discern them, but ultimately even the "undeserving poor" are going to be sleeping someplace tonight. Wouldn't it be better and cheaper to take care of these people in appropriate ways than to just let them fend for themselves?
Toilets and sanitary issues for homeless people remain as a frequently mentioned unmet need. The options are few and getting fewer. Public toilets have been proposed in the various public planning documents for almost twenty years with no effect.
One of the goals of the conversations is to gather ideas about community-based solutions. Here is one solution that stood out from the rest.
One woman and some of her friends expressed their generosity through a service provider for homeless families. They interviewed several families and selected one they felt would benefit from the services provided and the help they were prepared to give. Over a period of a year or so they helped them deal with the typical problems a family might encounter entering back into society. This would include providing cloths, furniture, help finding services, or dealing with various agencies. They generally provided moral support along with some resources to fill in the gaps. But most of all they provided friendship and someone to talk to about their successes and difficulties. If more people would do this, the transition back to a normal life would be much easier.
If you would like more informational about the Homelessness Working Group please join the list serve: firstname.lastname@example.org. It's archive has a great amount of background information about homelessness along with a record of our activities. You will also be informed of future meetings and events. The HWG also maintains several pages on the Southeast Uplift web-site and you are encouraged to look at the information posted there for additional background about the Homelessness Working Group and what we are doing. You may contact us at SE Uplift: HWG@southeastuplift.org or at 503-232-0010 ext. 20.