Firstly, I know, homelessness has a stigma. You can call it whatever you want, but I’m sticking with the most commonly used term.
Secondly, this is a broad issue and term. Some people choose to live ‘home free,’ others, battle addiction issues, some just don’t make enough money to afford non-temporary accommodations.
Homelessness can look like someone sleeping on the sidewalk, appearing dirty, perhaps conversing with themselves. It could look like someone sleeping in a car, someone at a shelter, someone in transition; it could even be someone staying with a friend or relative.
For this post, I want to discuss what many in America’s urban centers might consider street people or ‘homeless’ populations.
This is a huge problem, and by huge I mean incredibly complex. There are countless others who could speak better on this subject, however, from my perspective there seem to be a lot of assumptions and a lot of misses in terms of policy that might elevate this issue.
The Urban Core
I live in Portland’s ‘urban core’… aka “downtown.” A place, even many locals don’t seem to understand houses a sizable portion of the Portland population (land density). It’s also possibly the most diverse part of the city in terms of demographics, often lumped in with the Pearl District & Goose Hollow, “Down Town” is mostly offices, shopping, food, and entertainment. A surprising amount of people live there, ~2% of Portland’s population in just this one neighborhood.
A lot of the homelessness complaints originate from the downtown area, including the Peral, Goose Hollow, & NW neighborhoods. It’s hard to substantiate that, but I think most people think that to be true; but anichdotically, a lot of people seem to think there’s a problem ‘downtown.’ I will note, all areas of town are affected, but I’ll speak to what I know.
There seem to loosely be a few types of folks that get lumped into homeless: people traveling through, mentally ill, people without a place, and everyone else. It’s important to note people often overlap in category, and of course, far too much nuance to address in a few hundred words.
These are just folks who wander through. They usually have gear (tents/sleeping bags), are usually respectful, and seemingly just ‘hang out’ for a night or a few days and are never seen again.
These are the folks that seem, at least to me, not in a shared reality. Their behavior is completely erratic, they might be conversing with themselves or seemingly nothing. They might appear violent or aggressive.
People without Place
This is the most difficult category. I think this tends to be people who are in some sort of transition, maybe the shelter was full, maybe they didn’t kick the addiction the previous night. These are the folks who sometimes appear quite well one day and the next day are passed out with an empty booze bottle or needle caps. These are the folks that tend to be around for days or weeks, sometimes never to be seen again; sometimes months later.
Now, what I’m attempting to do here, is to demystify ‘homeless’ people based on my interactions. These are observational groupings I’ve come up with, largely without talking to the people nor experts in the field– I do, however, seek to decontextualize that all people who are seemingly homeless are all alike. While this may seem obvious, in my conversations with my neighbors and suburban Portlanders; in my experience, this is simply not the case. In any case, I’ve thought quite a bit about this and have some ideas to help the folks that seem to need it.
Public Health Crisis
We know historically that lack of sanitation is bad for large human populations. While Portland does offer the Portland Lue, there are not nearly enough of them, and many cities offer no such service. Hepatitis A outbreaks have been on the rise. Canada, thanks Canada, has a great list of things the specifically effect homeless populations. The NIH, thanks NIH, also has a very good long from article on the topic as well.
We are all the problem. We complain, point fingers, suppose causes to issues, always find an excuse to not make actionable change.
Let’s face it. It’s likely folks living on the street, all things, considered, would rather be not living on the street. Perhaps, more shockingly, the general population agrees with this. Folks complain all the time about these people. I witness at least 2-3 confrentations a week within 5 blocks of my home. Sometimes it’s between homeless folks, but often it’s between folks who seem to not be homeless and folks that seem to be.
It can get real ugly folks. The amount of inhuman treatment I witness every day is not only heartbreaking, but seemingly getting worse. Just this morning I witnessed someone screaming a person sleeping by a building that they “need to get the fuck out because I’m calling the owner!” Ok, how would you feel if someone came into your bedroom and started screaming at you to get the fuck out? Yea, the person sleeping outside likely didn’t own the property, but is this really where we’re at as a society? Most people in my experience wake up and go about their day, leave little or no trash and that’s that. There are also clearly people who ‘dig in’ for a long stay, and those people also feel the wrath of a public that seems to care more for their dog than they do for a fellow human.
You might think, ‘I never see that happen.’ I’d challenge you to get out of your car and walk the city you live in; ride public transit. It’s all around us and seems to be getting worse. It’s not just an issue in the coffee shop you frequent– as I write this, I’m witnessing mental illness in action. Should the student that’s working for likely minimum wage, likely untrained in mental health, be forced to deal with the inaction of the larger society?
Yes. This is the ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ city of Portland, OR. We should be, and need to be ashamed of ourselves. I don’t think most people are sleeping on the sidewalk (often without padding) by choice. Sure, maybe they made some poor choices in life, maybe it’s even their own doing– some sort of destructive behavior– but don’t we owe our fellow human(s) some fucking empathy? Don’t we owe them, at the very least, a way out?.. a path to success for you folks in business.
But, Andrew, what about all the services my tax dollars pay for⁉️ It’s just development, it’s all the gentrification’s fault. The Mayor refuses to do anything; the police suck.
As this is a complex issue, and there are multiple contributing factors, those common criticisms are likely not completely off, however, you are the problem. We are all the problem. We complain, point fingers, suppose causes to issues, always find an excuse to not make actionable change.
It’s Reagan’s Fault
I’m going to start with the blame of one Ronald Reagan. He’s getting all the credit. Problem solved! Wait, maybe it was Kennedy? No, it was congress and Carter! I mean, after all, public mental institutions were a bit of a mess until recently, right? Let’s be honest, most modern medicine is advanced bloodletting… it’s not like it’s used today… right 🤦🏼♂️?
That’s all a little confusing… we didn’t even cover individual vs society rights… maybe in another post.
I’m not sure it matters whose fault it is or isn’t. Let’s agree to let the historians sort it all out– after we fix the issue. But, to fix the issue we need an honest assessment of the problem.
Homelessness the Problem
Is it THE PROBLEM? Or, perhaps, is homelessness a symptom🤯? Maybe the problem is economic, or is it health, or maybe they’re just lazy. Ok, the link on lazy was a bait and switch, of course, they’re not lazy.
It does seem its mostly economic and health issues that are the primary drivers of homelessness. Economic; being people can’t afford to live (rent is too high) or even have jobs (no income), and a decent percentage is likely related to mental health issues.
That’s easy… universal income and rent control! Ok, seriously, please don’t do rent control it doesn’t work… or maybe it does… it’s really confusing and mostly hypothetical… a lot like universal income… though rent control seemingly doesn’t increase housing supply and thus worsening conditions for all people renting. It probably really drives up property value though… so homeowners are happy I guess? Unless you own rental property, then you have a fixed and predictable income stream (rate increases are usually caped in a predictable way), but have almost no incentives to increase property value, since dumping money into a property doesn’t or won’t increase the amount of money you can charge for rent… so why even bother?
Ok, so that’s super complicated too, and I’ll be writing a lot more on this in the future.
It really turns out people just need high paying jobs so they can afford a place to live. Ok, problem solved.
Maybe not so fast.
A Theory I Have
In a future aforementioned post I do plan to fix the economy and housing market 🙊, however specifically with homelessness, I think there’s a pretty solid underlying assumption that can be made. These folks likely lack the skills to get jobs. We’re also needing to assume that jobs can be had at a rate that allows people to afford rent (looking at you Bay Area), again I’ll address that in the future, I think, for argument’s sake we make that assumption.
There are plenty of services for folks that need them though, right?
Just use your favorite search engine. Well, I suppose that means you have access to a computer and the internet. I mean, if you’re homeless it’s probably a fair assumption your access is limited if not, nonexistent.
Library to the rescue! Those things are great places to get on the internet for free and books have lots of info right? Assuming you can read in the first place, maybe. But getting a library card usually requires an ID, and an ID usually requires an address. Ok, so this is complicated too, but theoretically doable right?
Radical Thought Experiment
A thought experiment, which is a surprisingly modern invention.
Next, we identify public spaces, like parks, that people can sleep in between the hours of 8 pm-7 am.
We’ll staff them with security services (no fighting), portable toilets (maybe build more Loo’s), portable showers, existing health and dental services; drug treatment and social services; and even food. We should probably have some sort of locker system, need somewhere safe to store things. Let’s throw in a public transit pass too, got to get around.
We’ll require people that stay there to register since let’s be honest it’s ridiculous to think people won’t move in for this deal… realistically it’s hard to get services if you’re not a resident, so we make you one. Probably need to use Face ID or some sort of biometrics, for when people lose or claim they lost their ID. It’s honestly not feasible to provide free services to anyone that wants them, there has to be some limit.
We also need to provide job skills, job coaching, access to GED and tech school programs (let’s have a scholarship fund and low-interest loans)… oh and don’t forget about finical coaching… how to open and use a checking and savings account. And while we’re at it… let us give them some walking around money, maybe some gift cards to thrift stores… hard to get a job if you don’t look the part right… well fuck it; let’s just have a job program that we’ll, yes, we the people, will hire them to do work we need to be done in the city. They’ll get some training, and skills, and earn that paycheck (even the Republicans will be proud of that… maybe)… more importantly, they’ll demonstrate they can hold a job, which is a very important signal for future employment.
Not really, some folks in LA are already kind of doing this. The difference is, this isn’t a market problem, therefor private industry can’t actually solve it (and won’t because it’s hard to profit on people that don’t have any or little means), they can help, but we the people, the government, needs to step in and provide leadership and some services to get people going.
That’s the easy part. We the people need to agree to solve this. We need to try some things, and if or when they fail, we need to keep trying until we find what works. We need honest measurability, and we need to accept people as they come and as they are.
About the author:
Andrew lives in Portland, OR and has worked in tech for over 15 years. With a foundation in philosophy, political theory, and communications, he is an avid thinker & tinkerer, constantly learning and exploring the world around us.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License © 2019.