By editorial board • 

With local effort, state resolve, homelessness not intractable

Houston, we have a problem. We have more people than we can manage to reliably feed and house, and the ones falling out the bottom are spilling into the streets because they have nowhere else to go.

These are neighbors of ours. And, in many cases, they may be facing medical, educational, social, mental and substance abuse challenges. That’s in addition to the challenges associated with hunger and homelessness, including lack of employment, transportation and job skills.

We tried simply looking the other way. We realized they were sleeping under bridges, in parking garages and other out of the way places, but out of sight and out of mind seemed as if it might be the best we could do.

Ah, then they began taking up residence in the parking lots of downtown churches, where their prolonged presence, and the unsightly, unsanitary debris inevitably accumulating with it, incurred the wrath of residents and merchants. Something must be done about the unhoused, the housed informed their elected representatives in no uncertain terms.

But in 2019, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. Boise that government has no right to criminalize lying, sitting or sleeping on public streets and sidewalks. That’s an unavoidable result of homelessness, the court ruled, and punishing a person’s homeless status violates the Eight Amendment’s proscription of cruel and unusual punishment.

Around these parts, that allowed sprawling encampments to grow around clusters of derelict RVs on Doran Drive and Dustin Court, serving to further fan the flames.

By 2019, Oregon’s Housing and Community Services Department found at least 16,000 Oregonians were homeless and almost two-thirds were living in “unsheltered locations.” That’s a nice way of saying in the rain, snow and cold, perhaps on a street near you. It also determined Oregon was about 6,000 short of enough shelter beds to get the willing moved inside, even on a temporary basis.

Urban centers everywhere are facing homeless challenges, but Oregon is experiencing one of the highest unsheltered rates in the nation — a distinction it shares with neighboring Washington. And the agency said Oregon’s already nationally noted rate   shot up another 37 percent just between 2015 and 2019.

Both the state and its city and county subdivisions have been fighting back on two fronts.

First, as a temporary fix serving to ease pressure from irate constituents, they have found ways to bar makeshift encampments without violating the standards of Martin v. Boise. Second, and much more material to solving the problem on a long-term basis, they have begun to develop a wider range of shelter options designed to transition the chronically homeless into permanent housing.

The second prong of that attack is poised to take a big leap forward with Senate approval of House Bill 2006, now appearing all but certain. Meanwhile, congressional passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which allocates almost $4.3 billion to Oregon, seems perfect for infusing some federal money in support.

To their credit, locals played a big part in championing HB 2006, which would expand the definition of qualifying transitional housing and ease some of the otherwise prohibitive planning and zoning barriers.

Local state Rep. Ron Noble served as one of several Republican co-sponsors. What’s more, none of his GOP colleagues opposed the bill in committee and only four did so on the floor — perennial contrarian Mike Nearman of neighboring Polk County and three other lawmakers serving rural areas less exposed to the problem.

Along the way, it drew support from an array of locally elected and appointed officials, including Mayor Scott Hill and Councilor Kellie Menke of McMinnville.

Does this approach work? We not only have proof, but we actually have impressive local proof, courtesy of the Yamhill Community Action Partnership.

In the winter of 2019, YCAP was able to begin moving homeless families and individuals into motels in Newberg and McMinnville on a temporary basis, thanks to financial support from the county and two cities. The agency was able to move 53 of the initial 74 participating households into permanent housing — an eye-popping success rate, given all the intrinsic challenges.

The key is to give participants a fixed and secure place to sleep, eat, shower and carry out other parts of their daily lives while working with case managers on the housing and employment needs keeping them from being self-supporting.

It’s almost impossible for case managers to provide that kind of support to people wandering the countryside. Getting them assembled in a safe and healthy central location is a virtually essential starting point.

McMinnville City Councilor Remy Drabkin termed it “the most effective thing we have seen in our area at reducing homelessness.” And state House Bill 2006, federal American Rescue Plan and like measures of constructive intent can ensure YCAP’s motel project is just a starting point.

It just goes to show, your government can help solve your problems if you give it a chance.

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