Thursday, February 25, 2016

LIVING ON THE STREET IS THE NEW NORMAL IN AMERICA

 Homeless, or what we now are told to refer to as houseless people, are now a major part of the Portland landscape. Tents and vehicles and sleeping bags and shopping carts and piles of stuff are under every overpass and also lining the sidewalk in sections of many neighborhoods. It's very sad, for sure. It's also very frustrating.
How and why did this happen? What should the city government do about this? Is this really how we want people to live who are down and out? Is this really what we want to see every day, everywhere we go in our once beautiful city?

In some ways, Portland is a mecca for people who are houseless. I talked to a woman recently who lives in a tent near the river and asked her why she is living outside. She said that she really doesn't want to live outside like this, and that she has been on the housing list for over three years. She also told me that when she has traveled, people all over the country say that they want to go to Portland because we are so nice here and don't hassle them the way other cities do. Great.

It is actually unlawful to camp on public property (sidewalk, street, park) in Portland, which includes in a sleeping bag, tent or vehicle. At least it was until last week, when our mayor and City Council instituted a new "temporary" measure allowing people to sleep on the sidewalk, but not with a tent, during nighttime, as long as their stuff is gone during the day. The city will also be identifying properties where people can set up their tent and live, and the city will provide some kind of toilet facilities, lockers for personal belongings, and maybe even showers. Camping in city parks is also unlawful, but a lot of people do it anyway, and it seems that this is also being condoned.

We have a tent city in Portland that has been occupying an empty lot downtown, with the owner's permission, for a few years. This camp is known as Right to Dream, Too (R2D2), and is self-regulated by the people who live or shelter there. They have rules, including no drugs or alcohol, there is a kitchen, there are lockers and toilets. People can stay for up to 12 hours, which is unlike any other shelter; although some people have lived there full-time for 3-4 years. The city has now voted to move the camp to a city-owned property in the eastside industrial district, and the city will provide toilets, showers, power and etc.

Tent cities - modern Hoovervilles. Is this Portland's answer to houselessness? It is Portland's temporary solution, we are told, until a better solution is in place. Great. And what is the better solution? I'm actually not sure.

In the meantime, Portland is in the midst of an incredible apartment and house building boom. Huge apartment buildings are springing up like fungi all over town. New homes are springing up in every neighborhood. The problem is that the rents and purchase prices are almost the highest in the nation. People working low-wage jobs can't afford these apartments. The new homes being built are in the $600,000 - $800,000 range, not what one would call starter or affordable homes. And a lot of these are being built where older, smaller houses have been bought and demolished by big development companies.

With all the new construction, you would think the city would require a certain percentage of affordable houses and apartments. But this isn't the case. In fact, Oregon and Texas are the only two states in America that, by law, prohibit local governments from requiring a percentage of affordable units. That sucks big time.

So we have a choice here in Portlandia, love it or leave it. Some businesses have decided to leave it and closed. Some people like us are trying to think about where to go.

The police are stymied, by the way. They are powerless to do much in this situation except try to ask people to be reasonable and use good behavior and try not to be in the way. A friend of ours who owns a restaurant nearby has to put up with a man living in one of the three doors to her restaurant. He sleeps in the covered doorway every night, and leaves his loaded shopping cart and other junk on the sidewalk next to the door all day. The cops have been out many times, but are helpless to do anything about it.
Around the corner from our home at a local restaurant. He was sleeping in on this day.
As for the how and why - well, this is a topic of discussion every day with everyone we know. The recession. Reagan booting people out of mental health care facilities and closing them. The list is long. But my aha moment recently was this, the reason we now have so many people living on the streets of America is the Republican-controlled Congress. Every measure that would help people stay off the streets has been defeated or discontinued. Funding has been cut for social welfare programs, health care, education and many other things. Yes, unemployment is down, but that is only a measure of the people who are looking for work, not those who have given up and are now living under a bridge or in a doorway.

I won't get into my rant about politics, politicians, big money interests, and this election cycle. But you know what I would say if I said it, don't you?

This situation is out of control. People should not be living on the street. This should not be the new normal in America, but it is.

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