As cold weather blows in, the trend looks dismal for homelessness in Portland. Jobs are scarce. Foreclosures are accelerating. And social service agencies report that more and more families - as opposed to single individuals - are being forced out of apartments and houses.
This community already does a lot - more than most, in fact - to stem the rising tide of homelessness. But in the face of these increasing needs, we also must ask if we can do even more - individually and collectively.
The gnawing problem of homeless families, in particular, must weigh on the sympathies of the public. People become homeless for a variety of reasons. They lose their jobs. They become ill and are hammered with medical bills they can't afford to pay. They make mistakes or poor choices (haven't we all?). Many homeless people, especially the single homeless, also suffer from mental illnesses.
Children, families losing homes
But whatever the precipitating causes of homelessness, there's no getting around the fact that a growing number of children are being forced with their parents into cars, shelters and warming centers. People who provide services to the homeless estimate that children now make up 30 percent of the homeless population in Portland. On any given night, 1,266 children are without a home.
In the winter, these families are served by expanded shelters and warming centers that provide temporary relief. They also are eligible for programs that either help them remain in their homes to start with - or help them find permanent housing after they've gone through the wrenching experience of homelessness.
Temporary solutions, of course, are not the best way to go for families and children, who need the stability of a real home. In the realm of homeless assistance, shelters and warming centers are akin to hospital emergency rooms - they deal with people when they're already in crisis mode. Such top-gap measures are essential when needed, but more lasting answers can be found in prevention.
Push for right resources, policies
As Portland-area communities continue their fight to find both short- and long-term solutions, we believe there are additional steps that citizens can take to assist those without homes:
• People can provide direct assistance, by donating to and otherwise supporting nonprofit groups - including the Salvation Army, Human Solutions, Central City Concern, JOIN or the numerous other organizations that contract with the city or Multnomah County to address homelessness. (For a full list, consult www.portlandonline.com.) Human Solutions, for example, is asking people to donate food directly to its family warming center at Northeast 81st Avenue and Halsey Street. 'There are hungry people there to eat it,' says Jean DeMaster, executive director of that agency.
• Citizens also can push for the right policies and appropriate funding for solutions to homelessness - with an emphasis on helping people avoid losing their dwellings to start with. This means expanding current rent-assistance programs, because every dollar spent on preventing an eviction could save many more dollars downstream. It also means renewing the region's push for quality affordable housing that provides stability to families at risk of homelessness.
• Citizens can refrain from simply giving spare change to people who panhandle for assistance. We embrace the concept of aiding the needy and the homeless that Portland business leaders, non-profits and the city of Portland have adopted: 'Real change; not spare change.'
• We also believe it's time for the city of Portland and Multnomah County to evaluate whether it still makes sense to have two distinct systems to deal with homelessness. Due to an agreement made 26 years ago, the city is responsible for providing help to homeless individuals, while the county is responsible for homeless families and children. The two governments should study whether a more unified approach to homelessness would eliminate duplication, reduce confusion and ultimately generate more resources to meet the community's stated goal of ending homelessness altogether.