BY BRIAN LIBBY
Today's Oregonian includes two stories about the struggle against homelessness that together say a lot about the up-and-down nature of the problem and how we approach it.
First, there was a Mike Francis interview with the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, in which the secretary says the country remains on track to end homelessness among military veterans in 2015. Shinseki told reporters Monday there has been "clear and remarkable" progress in the federal government efforts to reduce such homelessness.
Next year, Francis reports, the VA will triple its community grants addressing homelessness among veterans and their families. The agency will also spend $300 million awarding competitive grants under the agency's Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, which provides homeless beds in Portland and beyond. Shinseki spoke as part of the just-released Department of Housing and Urban Development 2012 Point-in-Time Estimate of homeless people.
"The numbers are drawn from an intensive effort to count the homeless on a single night last January," Francis explains. "Overall, the survey showed that overall U.S. homelessness remained roughly constant, with an estimated 633,782 people sleeping outdoors or in a shelter. But the homeless veterans component of that total declined to 62,619, about 7.2 percent lower than in 2011."
This kind of study is by nature imperfect, providing only a snapshot of the homeless population on one evening. But if the picture is accurate, it's worth celebrating that homeless veterans are living on the streets less often. A major factor in this progress has been Portland VA's Community Resource and Referral Center in downtown Portland. "The center, which opened in April, is one of the nation's first in a program the VA has rolled out to address homelessness and other problems, such as substance abuse and unemployment," Francis writes.
However, today's Oregonian also included a report by Rebecca Koffman that supporters of the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp at SW Fourth and Burnside marched on City Hall Monday to protest the monthly city fines that are placing the camp in jeopardy. The camp, which sits on private property, is charged only $1 per year by landlords Michael Wright, Linda, Daniel and Donna Cossette. But the city's development bureau is imposing fines of $1,346 per month for violating recreational campground codes.
Nevermind that Right 2 Dream Too is decidedly not a recreational campground. More importantly, Oregon law allows for two such sites within a city, and Portland only has one: Dignity Village.
In other words, for all its efforts to build homeless resource centers and take other steps to curb homelessness in Portland, the city is playing hardball with Right 2 Dream Too.
Why? I think it's because of location. Dignity Village is tucked away in the Sunderland neighborhood of Northeast Portland, about seven miles from downtown near the airport. Not only is it allowed by the city, but City Council has even taken steps repeatedly from efforts to have it closed. But Right 2 Dream Too sits on the city's most unifying street, Burnside, right where downtown meets Old Town. It sits blocks away from restaurants, condos and art galleries. Thus, it's not just a homeless encampment, the thinking seems to go, but an embarrassing eyesore.
There are legitimate concerns on both sides.
From the city's perspective, Old Town has been a destitute, crime-ridden area for many decades, yet big strides have been made in recent years. It's not at all to say that homeless people and their camps should be swept out of view from the rest of us frequenting restaurants, galleries, offices and condos. But the city just invested in the award-winning Bud Clark Commons(designed by Portland's Holst Architecture), a resource center for the homeless, and it has made numerous other investments to provide alternatives to such DIY homeless camps. Places like Right 2 Dream Too, stitched together with canvass, string and plastic, are precisely what Bud Clark Commons seeks to render unnecessary.
Yet it's never so simple. Homelessness is too much of a wicked problem to imagine that any amount of investment by the public or private sectors can be truly eradicated. If Right 2 Dream Too is emblematic of that, we should endeavor not simply enable or disable that effort with how we interpret city regulations, but to learn from it. If Right 2 Dream Too needs to go away, what's the alternative for these people? What does it say about the location of Dignity Village? And if state law allows for two such camps, where might we move R2DT if it must leave Old Town? Assessing fines is just a passive-aggressive bureaucratic move. It doesn't solve the problem or address its root causes.
Furthermore, why can't design solve this? Right 2 Dream Too has even worked with architects to create more of a permanent settlement. As Street Roots' Joanne Zuhl has argued, does it have to be brick and mortar and institutionally driven or nothing?
Coincidentally, not long after reading the two Oregonian stories today, I received a press release from the nonprofit Dill Pickle Club about a poster sale this Saturday that's part of a fundraising effort and awareness campaign about resisting foreclosures. The poster, by comic artist Jesse Reklaw, is being sold at a special release party held by the Dill Pickle Club and fellow nonprofit We Are Oregon at the Northeast Portland home of Alicia Jackson, who is featured in the poster, moved back into her home with community support on May 1st of this year, and remains in her home resisting foreclosure.
"Don't Move Out" illustrations (courtesy Dill Pickle Club)
"When people hear about folks fighting foreclosure, sometimes their reaction is to blame the victim and place responsibility for the crisis on the individual borrowers" said Angus Maguire, of WAO, in the press release. "This poster is a great tool because it shows clearly how it isn't so cut and dry. Banks and developers bear responsibility for the ongoing crisis, and this poster will help us reach more folks as we organize to hold banks and developers accountable."
Considering the three stories together - the homeless vet housing, the fines mounting against a homeless camp, the resistance against bank foreclosures - I was struck by the fact that the military in this case, is coming out as the more progressively humane institution than either Portland city government or the financial institutions holding most of our money and retirement accounts. This is just a one-time snapshot and not the rule, of course. The military has often been criticized for its spotty record taking care of veterans' health once they return from the battlefield. But it goes to show that, if the reduced homeless-vet numbers cited in Francis's Oregonian story are accurate, that progress can be made.
Hopefully, though, both the military and the city understand that this isn't a conflict we can parachute into, quickly win, and then forget about. This isn't Grenada. Homelessness is like Vietnam, something we're capable of winning but requires a nimbleness and persistence we may not have the coordination or stomach for.