November 12, 2012

Our View: Programs alone won't fight homelessness

It will take a change of attitude to treat everyone with the dignity that they deserve.

Every Nov. 11, America honors its veterans. But on Nov. 12, tens of thousands of those honorees sleep on our streets.

click image to enlarge

Members of Deering Memorial VFW Post 6859 color guard marches along Congress Street during the Portland Veterans Day parade Sunday. Homelessness among veterans is a growing problem in Portland and cities throughout America.

Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Homelessness is a growing problem in Portland and cities throughout America, particularly among veterans. While only 8 percent of Americans can claim veteran status, an estimated 20 percent of the homeless have served their nation in the military.

This is a sickening statistic. It's hard to balance the fact that we can honor people for their service one day and cast them aside the next. But it is a disconnect that is equally troubling when looking at the entire homeless community.

In another context, the people we see lining up at a soup kitchen or tenting in some urban woods would be seen as someone's son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father.

They might be seen as people who have experienced a financial setback that wasn't their fault or as people suffering from mental illness or a substance abuse problem and worthy of our compassion.

But too often we write these people off as nuisances, freeloaders or people who take advantage of our generosity, as if shivering in the cold is somehow an easy life.

And this is not just a problem of public attitudes. With the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 economic stimulus bill, programs that effectively helped getting people off the street and into housing have disappeared.

The state budget is balanced on cuts to health care for single adults, which hit homeless populations especially hard.

The loss of that support has not made homelessnes any less of a problem, but it has shifted costs onto municipalities. Portland has responded with a local task force of service providers and the business community that is developing a strategy to end homelessnes in the city. It is a multi-faceted response to a complex problem that does not have a single cause or solution.

There are programs that have been proven to make a difference, but the answer won't be solved through programs alone. It takes a community-wide commitment to treating everyone with dignity, and ending practices like honoring veterans one day and stepping over homeless vets the next.


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