MY VIEW • As homelessness increases, Portland needs to respond with compassion
by: Tribune File Photo, A man draped in blankets makes his way through Old Town towards Blanchet House, which serves the homeless. Homelessness is increasing in Portland, and a former city official says Portlanders can’t forget that “we need to look out for each other.”

As reported last month, homelessness is on the rise in Portland, as measured by demand for beds at shelters and meals at soup kitchens. (Report shows rise in homelessness, Dec. 18)

As unemployment nears 10 percent and hard times loom ahead, we can expect the problems of homelessness to multiply. This recession may be worse than in the 1980s, and that one was very bad in Portland. While we like to think of Portland as progressive these days, in some critical ways we are less able to help people in need than we were then.

Peter Korn's article touched upon the critical issue in describing a shift in the homeless population from inner Portland neighborhoods to the neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue, a trend that tracks with the displacement of about 20,000 working people from inner Portland neighborhoods since 1990.

Many of those people moved into the neighborhoods between 82nd Avenue and the western parts of Gresham, not because they wanted to but because they could no longer afford to stay in their homes closer to downtown.

Meanwhile, the central city has become a glittering gem of urban planning and sustainable development. The New York Times regularly sings Portland's praises and police sweep downtown homeless camps thanks to a more aggressive stance from the Portland City Council, backed up by key voices in the business community.

For generations, Portland was a community with mixed-income neighborhoods, especially on the east side, in Old Town and Northwest. It was a gritty industrial town, filled with loggers and longshoremen, shipyard workers, farm workers, cowboys and ranch hands, Native Americans, East Coast and Midwest refugees, immigrants from the Pacific Rim - and yes, even transplanted Californians.

For its entire history, Portland has been a home to the adventurous, the oddball, the misfit and the down on their luck. Personally, I'm awfully thankful for Portland's embrace of the weird, as I've never felt more at home anywhere.

Portland has always had its wealthy residents, as well, and those citizens - business leaders prominent among them - invested in the development of a strong network of churches, rescue missions, soup kitchens and other community organizations needed to hold the stitching together.

Built up over generations, Portland's social services are just as much a part of our infrastructure as our bridges and our stadiums. Take 1,000 homeless people - who are homeless for as many different reasons as there are shapes of snowflakes - and Portland's social services can help them make the changes needed to get back on their feet.

About 25 percent of Portland's homeless are chronically homeless, defined as being on the street for more than a year with a disability that makes reintegration difficult. The rest, which amount to a few thousand people every year, are without a home temporarily.

Think about that. Each year, something like 2,000 to 3,000 people in Portland become temporarily homeless. Over a decade, even allowing for a lot of repeat business, well over 10,000 people are in need of some temporary shelter or assistance.

When people are uprooted because of a crisis, they can be swept away by whatever winds are blowing. Because it happened over 20 years, this massive displacement wasn't as visible as it would have been had it happened all at once. But in many ways, the effects on peoples' lives have been just as severe.

In inner Portland, people have lost their ties to their neighborhood, and vital institutions like our African-American churches have been separated from a large segment of the community they serve. Schools have closed or are threatened with closure owing to low enrollment.

In our outer east neighborhoods, poverty has become concentrated, school populations have exploded and development has overwhelmed the substandard infrastructure.

The school districts need help to pay for new schools, but average incomes are too low to pass bond measures. Substandard housing needs to be upgraded so that it is safe and decent, without displacing the residents who need an affordable place to live. Increasing violent crimes and other severe symptoms of a struggling community call out for attention.

These problems were acute in recent years when times were good. Now, with this new economic crisis upon us, our city's new unintended settlement patterns will be severely tested.

The problems caused by gentrification are not going away with the recession. They are getting worse.

Portland will fail as a city if it continues to fail its working people. If Portland doesn't make room for everyone in its neighborhoods, it won't just lose its defining spirit as a great town with a lot of character.

Something much more serious and scary looms. If Portland dumps its low-income residents at the edge of town and leaves them to fend for themselves in crowded and unsatisfactory conditions, the problems of violent crime, middle school and high school dropouts, drugs and despair will chew up any policing efforts and spit them back out again.

'Out of sight, out of mind' is not an answer. We have to first acknowledge clearly that we are all in this together. The quality of our lives cannot be kept separate from the quality of everyone else's lives. Beginning with the recognition of this basic obligation - that we need to look out for each other - we can do the work necessary to make sure that hope triumphs over fear.

Rich Rodgers is a small business owner working in the IT industry. For 11 years, he was a policy adviser to Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten. He lives in Irvington with his wife, Caitlin Baggott, and their daughter.

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