October 29, 2013

Our View: Homeless family surge shows depth of need

The problem is not that there are too many people seeking help, but that there is not enough affordable housing.

‘Homelessness,” like “poverty,” is a one-word name for a constellation of problems that have deep roots and far-reaching consequences.

click image to enlarge

Brian Marchant, left, and Bonane Rutijanwa, shelter attendants for the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, arrange mats on the floor of the General Assistance Office last week for homeless people to sleep on if the other shelters are full. A surge in the number of homeless families seeking help is reflective of the city’s tight housing market and the still-slow pace of economic recovery.

2013 File Photo/Gordon Chibroski

There is not just a single reason that a person ends up homeless and not just a single answer to the needs of everyone who seeks a place in a shelter. A person with mental illness or addiction is not homeless for the same reasons as an out-of-work mother trying to keep her family together or a teenager escaping an abusive home. These are all different problems that each call for a different response.

Portland is reporting record numbers of people seeking housing in its homeless shelters, while the state as a whole has seen only a modest rise. This leads to predictable questions about whether Portland’s low barrier to services makes it a magnet for people looking for a handout.

But the number of people seeking shelter beds just tells you the size of the problem, it’s not the problem itself. Denying services won’t make those problems go away – it will only increase suffering and create stresses elsewhere in the social service system.

Portland has been making progress in addressing chronic homelessness, working to place long-term street people in permanent housing, keeping the shelters for emergencies.

But this year there has been a surge in the number of homeless families seeking help, which is reflective of the city’s tight housing market and the still-slow pace of economic recovery.

Many working families live a car repair or medical emergency away from losing a job and a place to live. Giving a homeless family a place to stay, sometimes in a motel when the 94-bed family shelter is full, might sound expensive, but not when you compare it to the cost of not housing them.

According to research conducted by the National Conference of Mayors, 84 percent of homeless families are made up of a woman and her children. Forty-two percent of those children are under the age of 6.

Homeless children are sick four times as often as other children. They are four times as likely to have asthma, three times more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems and twice as likely to be hungry. Failing to help that family find permanent housing puts stress on hospital emergency rooms, emergency food services and school budgets.

The problem is not that Portland’s barriers for services are too low, but that the need for affordable housing is too high. There is no easy answer, but ultimately the solution is to help people find a place to live, not turn them away from the shelters.

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