By editorial board • 

Local efforts may not solve homelessness, but they help

The three candidates for Oregon governor last week kicked off the general election season with a debate hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

On the issue of homelessness, they hit all the talking points.

They each touted projects they had worked on. Republican Christine Drazan discussed her work on launching Second Home, which focuses on finding stable living situations for homeless youth. Non-affiliated candidate Betsy Johnson recounted her support for the repurposing of the former Wapato Jail in Portland into a place of “recovery and reentry into society.” And Democrat Tina Kotek advocated for ongoing funding for Project Turnkey, which turns motels into transitional shelters (with one here in McMinnville).

They promised, if elected, to move people from the streets to organized housing with access to wrap-around services (Kotek); bring together public safety agencies, mental health experts, and others, “rather than working in silos” (Johnson); and replace partisan politicians with compassion and culpability, and seek out “community-based solutions on the ground” (Drazan).

The issue of homelessness will be front and center in the coming weeks leading up to election day on Nov. 8, as candidates at the state, county and city levels will present plenty of platitudes and heartfelt calls for action.

While you won’t likely hear a candidate say it, the fact is no one leader or group knows the solution. They know by now that broad plans to end homelessness within a certain time frame fall on deaf ears, as such campaigns have failed in the past. The more realistic approach is to seek out and celebrate small victories, and continuously shoot for small reductions in the unhoused population. There are many ways to help homeless people without trying to solve homelessness.

Residents’ intolerance for the homeless crisis peaks when it’s most present in view, as it is this election season.

In 2019, McMinnville officials launched a large-scale cleanup of curbside camps and run-down RVs parking on the street, following months of outcry from residents. The presence of visibly homeless has slowly yet surely regained the ire of local residents, who wish to take their kids to local parks without having to navigate around broken down vehicles and mounds of waste.

The city is again launching an effort to curb the problem areas. Having secured a lot to store illegally parked vehicles, Mac Police is set to begin warning people permanently parked on the streets to vacate, or have their vehicles towed. Chief Matt Scales told city councilors last week that several weeks of outreach will precede any action, so those living in vehicles understand the options available to them.

McMinnville is not short on compassion, proven by the neverending efforts of local organizations that work daily to direct the unhoused population to the services it needs. But lines need to be drawn. It was disheartening to learn of disturbing acts by unhoused people, told to councilors by leaders of Juliette’s House, the city’s child abuse intervention center. People seeking out services at the facility deserve a safe environment. As the council heard, nearby campers’ aggressive behavior has denied that on multiple occasions.

The forthcoming effort to clean up the problem areas won’t offer much solution to the issue of homelessness overall. There is no quick fix to many causes for people living on the streets, including drug addiction, ongoing mental health crisis, economic rollercoasters and an insufficient supply of affordable housing.

The governor candidates acknowledged that multiple models exist for addressing homelessness, but the air of disagreement among them prevails. While the candidates for governor and other state and federal offices continue to debate it this election season, it remains that local government and its partners are the ones that must deal with the problem on the ground.

No one should wait for some trickle-down of common sense on the topic, but perhaps one outcome of the candidates’ vigorous debate will be, finally, to crystallize local collaboration on solutions that make sense and make a difference.

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