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Does Portland Have the Political Will to End Homelessness?

Does Portland have the political will to end homelessness? Join a community conversation and find out how homeless citizens, advocates, and neighborhoods are working together to end the problem. Panelists will include: William Barnes, Jean DeMaster, Dan Newth, and Gretchen Kafoury.

Where: Portland State University Multicultural Center
Multicultural Center - Smith Memorial Student Union, Second Floor
When: Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - 6:30 to 8:30 PM
Free and Open to the Public
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:  pendulum@lists.riseup.net. 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.

Thank You For Doing This 25.Jun.2004 14:46


As the voice of the voiceless, you are amongst the most noble of society. Keep up the good work.

America has a lot of really bad problems, overwhelmingly from those who abuse power and trust. Undoubtedly, there are many activists and concerned citizens who are reading this article who are already working on issues of their own. And amongst those issues, homelessness is surely one of the most achingly dire and sad issues that we are dealing with. I think that as long we tolerate cruelty to a fellow sister or brother, we have a long way to go. However, the facts that we have to face are that there are too many issues to face and not enough people/time to fix them--therefore not everything gets done, even something as pressing as homelessness.
SO, I propose a solution. Forget about throwing money at the problem. We need the right people. There are plenty of good people that can help, and the only thing that's holding them back is TIME. "It became clear that a missing ingredient was public awareness..." Start thinking about discretionary time as your most valuable resource, and you will see an incredible source of power in the people. Given enough time, activists and their supporters can accomplish their tasks, and we can even reach those on the fringes. "If you build it, they will come."
Stop being controlled by money. Think of your time as something that YOU have a SUBSTANTIAL RIGHT to, not anyone else (except your family, they always need your time, and you theirs). When your time is used up, so is your life and your autonomy and your freedom from slavery.
If we all had true discretionary time, all the right people could attack all these issues and it would flow. It would metabolize all the good will around us.
Think of it like the diabetic that dies of starvation in times of plenty...because he or she lacks the right ingredient(insulin) to metabolize their energy............

No 26.Jun.2004 01:37


I really think most people enjoying the diversions of downtown do not care much about homelessness except for the fact they have to walk in or around a homeless person's various excretions. No one buying into the "I can do it, so can they" mentality, wants to give anyone a "free ride"....I think lots of really smelly, unhealthy people hanging around is one of the best, most effective tools to be used in providing better and more equally available, basic, essential services for all citizens. This, more than anything else, helps to evoke the sense of compassion resulting in shelters, and foodlines. I don't mean to undervalue true compassion arising from within sincere loving souls, as motivation for helping others. But I think the very slim percentage of these people in the population, bodes ill for any revolutionary change in the plight of homeless people.

Some thoughts 27.Jun.2004 20:16

Lazy non-deserving homeless person

Before I say anything else I would like to thank everyone involved with the homelessness Working Group for their time and energy in honestly addressing the issue. I have met several people involved with the HWG who are going beyond even "discretionary time" to do this necessary work.

Homelessness is less like a "cancer" than like a species; specifically the human species. The variety of reasons people are homeless in this country are as various as the lives that each person lives, whether they have a home or not. Zipped says, "But I think the very slim percentage of these people(homeless people) in the population, bodes ill for any revolutionary change in the plight of homeless people." while the percentage of those on the street may be slim, the percentage of those almost on the street is staggering. How many people in our society live from pay check to pay check? What is the average amount that a low income family pays of their monthly earnings to maintain a home? The answer to both questions is far to much.

When discussing homelessness the larger structural issues of our society need to be addressed. Scarcity of housing is a myth. Our culture is abundant when it comes to land and shelter. The real problem is the convoluted manner in which everyone is forced to seek shelter. Why on earth should people have to enslave themselves in order to have a roof over their heads? Why is everyone brainwashed into thinking they should have to pay rent or a mortgage in order to have a home? Speaking about the service providers Don says, "Over a period of a year or so they helped them deal with the typical problems a family might encounter entering back into society." Every homeless family is dealing with their own specific pressures and problems and so I do not want to diminish the valuable work the service providers are doing. However, it seems to me that the families "typical problems" are everyones typical problems, i.e. Society as is. Why should a family have to reenter the same thing that caused the problem to begin with? That's like helping a rape victim learn to live with and get used to rape.

When someone has been oppressed the answer is not to reaclimate the person to the oppressor. The answer is to dissolve the very relationship that reinforces oppression. The whole situation is pathological. As I stated before, and there is no way anybody could truly argue against this point, scarcity of housing (as well as all necessities) is a myth created and supported purely for profit. The relationship in terms of homelessness is between would-be tenants and landlords or banks. The homeless person(or family) is being oppressed by the landlord who seeks profitability for their property(ies). The landlord in turn is oppressed by a society which forces them to put profit before people. If they do not make a profit they lose their property. If they lose their property(ies) they may lose their own home. Both are living in fear and all fear the bank. The logic of the system is to impose fear from top to bottom.

I have no grand solutions for our society, but in the short term, if the city government is serious about the affordable housing and homelessness issues(which they're not)they need to allow people to squat on vacant property. Neighborhoods need to get over their middle class nimbyism and allow people to sleep in vacant builldings and public parks. That a person in the city of Portland is breaking the law by sleeping outside is a disgrace to the human race and "the city that works". Maybe if the homeless could get through a night of sleep without fear of harassment from the police they wouldn't have such a hard time "reentering society". Portland doesn't need affordable housing, it needs FREE housing. And while we're at it free food, free health care, etc. This city and society needs to get over it's fixation with "growth" of profit culture and start thinking about health; health of our people and planet. People do not need "jobs", they need food, shelter, healthcare, security, sanity, joy, love, and freedom.

Magnet 27.Jun.2004 22:16


Its political suicide to appeal to transient homeless nonvoters. Portland is my home and I dont think its a good idea to turn Portland into a magnet for the transient population of America. I am an advocate for the truly helpless, the wilderness wildlife. So please dont tell me I'm heartless. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.

the fish are dead 29.Jun.2004 16:11

and the water poluted

what fish are you supposed to eat when the economic structure controls access to food and in an economy that is desinged to have people on the streets? please don't be foolish to think that someone just slipped up on the economy and now we have people that are without homes. get a clue