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Our Opinion: Strong leadership, more shelter space essential to helping the homeless

Being home for the holidays is the American ideal. So it is disconcerting to acknowledge that thousands of people in the Portland area have no place to call home this Thanksgiving week.

Their plight comes in spite of the fact that homelessness is the issue du jour right now, with local political leaders, business groups and nonprofit organizations pledging to double down on efforts to alleviate a longstanding and highly visible problem.

The renewed energy is welcome. But it must be expended and sustained toward outcomes that can be measured by a public that’s heard too many times before that an end to homelessness is in sight.

This time, a comprehensive approach to the problem must not get bogged down in bureaucratic process, or sidetracked by a zealous preference for permanent housing over expanded shelter space. The homeless population is not a homogenous group. Multiple solutions must be employed to move people from streets, camps and couches to secure housing.

The compassion of Portland-area residents has never been in question, but channeling that empathy into an effective long-term strategy has been a challenge. Some worthy suggestions came last week from homeless expert Lloyd Pendleton, who was invited to town by the Portland Business Alliance. As the former director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, Pendleton led a successful program to reduce Utah’s chronic homelessness by 91 percent in 10 years.

Utah has some assets that Oregon and the metro area may lack, including substantial support from the Mormon Church, but its approach to homelessness also offers timely lessons, including:

-- Forceful leadership must come from the state level. Homelessness must be a priority for the governor and someone must be given enough clout to prod local officials to work in a unified direction.

-- Providing housing isn’t enough. Social services — caseworkers and mental-health counselors — are essential if homeless people are to make a successful transition to permanent housing.

-- Working with landlords is highly important. They are willing to accept Section 8 vouchers if they know social workers always will be available to deal with problems that arise.

-- More affordable housing is mandatory, but building it doesn’t have to be extraordinarily expensive. Pendleton advocated conversion of old motels or hotels into apartments. Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who appears likely to be Portland’s next mayor, is pushing this idea as well.

-- Investing in emergency shelters is critical. Portland has far fewer shelter beds per capita than Salt Lake City. That’s because Portland concentrated on getting homeless people directly into long-term housing, rather than putting dollars or support into the shelter system. It’s time to rethink that model and create more shelter beds.

On this latter point, Pendleton also emphasized the importance of shortening the average length of stay in shelters. If people can be moved through the shelter system more rapidly and into permanent housing, then that opens up more and more beds for the homeless who are still on the streets.

Another difference between Salt Lake City and Portland is the metro area’s tolerance of organized and unorganized camps. Salt Lake City doesn’t have camps in public places, and as a result, many of the quality-of-life issues that Portlanders endure don’t exist in Utah.

Camps are not an appropriate or humane way to help the homeless. Likewise, it is cruel to allow people to sleep in parks or under bridges when

frigid weather hits. If more shelter space is available, these outdoor alternatives are no longer necessary.

A comprehensive approach to homelessness requires determined leadership and an investment in shelters, affordable housing and social workers. The payoff, though, is better quality of life for everyone and a reduction in the direct costs associated with having to treat the homeless as an ongoing “emergency.”

— Pamplin Media Group