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New City Journal Essay

A few weeks ago I published a short op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the homelessness problem in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It was adapted from a much longer essay in the winter issue of City Journal.

The City Journal essay is online now. Here’s the first part.

My hometown, Portland, Oregon, has a homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges—more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It’s impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways, and where you can’t walk long without being hit up for spare change. You can hardly drive near the city center without encountering men or women holding up cardboard signs asking for money at an intersection.

Roughly 620,000 people live in Portland, and the suburbs push the metro area population to more than 2.3 million. As of January 2015, Multnomah County, which includes most of the city proper and all the city center, had 3,801 homeless people. Of these, according to the county’s biennial count, about 800 live in temporary shelters, 1,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 1,800 are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping under bridges, in parks, and on sidewalks.

Almost everyone who visits me asks what’s wrong with this place. Portland is a prosperous, high-tech Pacific Rim city, so why does it have so many street people? Is something uniquely the matter with the city? Not necessarily. But Portland is a better place to be homeless than most American cities. The weather is mild, the citizens are generous—Portlanders spend millions yearly in private donations and tax dollars trying to help the homeless—and public officials are blocked by the courts from regulating vagrancy in ways that are routine elsewhere. Some homeless actually move to Portland from other cities. Homelessness is so visible here that it has encouraged not only expansive nonprofit relief efforts, some of which seem to be doing real good, but also, in at least one case, an innovative approach that may truly ease the problem—and that other cities might consider adopting.

Homelessness is not a new issue in American life, but it started getting much worse everywhere—not just in Portland—beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the deinstitutionalization movement, which closed many state psychiatric hospitals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, by 2010, the number of beds per capita in psychiatric hospitals had plunged to 1850s levels. When the most severely mentally ill patients were freed from a system discredited by 1960s social movements and books like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they were ill-prepared for normal life. Many found themselves relegated to a Hobbesian existence on sidewalks.

“Dammasch State Hospital closed 20 years ago,” says David Willis, the homeless-services coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit. “Some went into adult foster care, but others stayed on the streets. The people who work in foster care don’t have a background in psychiatric counseling or care. They can’t handle these people. And mentally ill homeless people can’t help themselves. Somebody has to take care of them. Somebody has to make sure they bathe, change their clothes, and take their medications.”

Portland city councilman and housing commissioner Dan Saltzman agrees. “That did increase the homeless population on the streets of Portland and a lot of other cities,” he says of deinstitutionalization. “It’s a nationwide problem, and it really pulled the rug out from underneath a lot of people. Community resources were supposed to be put into place when we closed the big institutions, but the second part didn’t happen.”

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness of one kind or another, though many remain undiagnosed. “We see people with schizophrenia, depression, and trauma,” says Alexa Mason at the Portland Rescue Mission, another Christian nonprofit that provides food, blankets, and temporary shelter downtown. “Women on the streets are likely to be assaulted within 72 hours. Men get beat up. Just living outside is traumatizing. . . . When you add that on top of schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, people keep getting worse. This is one thing that everybody in government, social services, and the business community agrees on.”

Not everyone on the streets is mentally ill, and not all are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some just lost their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and found themselves in a maze from which they couldn’t escape. What almost all of them share, however, are weak social and family ties. “Almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network,” says Mason. “A lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.”

But these problems aren’t confined to the American Northwest; why does Portland seem to have so many more homeless people than elsewhere? One reason may be simple: Portland is a relatively “easy” place to be homeless—or, at least, it’s less brutal than elsewhere. Portlanders are indeed tolerant, and so are the police—not necessarily because they want to be but because they have to be. The city has repeatedly passed anti-panhandling statutes and so-called sit-lie ordinances, which ban sitting and lying on sidewalks, but they’re tough to enforce, thanks to reliably libertarian interpretations of Oregon’s constitution by the state supreme court and lower-level circuit courts. The result is that homeless people are more visible—and more numerous—here than in many other cities.

Portland’s gentle climate is another factor. Contrary to popular belief, Portland gets a third less rain than New York City, and the temperatures are milder year-round. Snow falls and sticks only once every few years. Sleeping outside in January’s 40-degree weather may not be comfortable, but it sure beats sleeping on the sidewalk in, say, Chicago, where one night in subzero weather can be fatal.

Portland’s nonprofit homeless services are extensive. “Portland Rescue Mission provides emergency services including meals, showers, clothing, and shelter for people living on the streets,” says Mason. “It’s open 24/7. We have mail service for about 1,000 people. From November 1 through March 31, we offer a free blanket exchange every night.” Though it doesn’t have beds for everyone—those get awarded by daily lottery—Portland Rescue Mission never runs out of food. “We have really good food here,” says Stacy Kean, the communications director at Union Gospel Mission, “food that you would want to eat. Having breakfast here is like going out to brunch. We have fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes.” “You wouldn’t believe how much food they have in the freezer,” a friend who volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank told me. When homeless people in downtown Portland ask passersby if they have any spare change, most of us assume that they need money for food. They don’t.

Are the homeless coming to Portland from elsewhere? “I don’t really believe these stories about other jurisdictions buying homeless people bus tickets to Portland,” says Commissioner Saltzman, but then he concedes: “Portland is a tolerant city and has a moderate West Coast climate, so I think there’s some truth to it.” “Most of the homeless people I know are from Portland or another West Coast city,” says Mason, “but I have met people who said they were homeless somewhere else and moved here intentionally to take advantage of Portland’s services and milder weather.” Agrees Willis of Union Gospel Mission: “They’re from Seattle. Texas. Alabama. People are coming here because we make it comfortable to be homeless.”

Read the rest in City Journal.

 

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