Same stale answers won’t solve Oregon’s homeless challenges

A fatal crash in Salem that killed four roadside campers made people reach for the same old playbook of solutions

April 13, 2022 5:30 am

A man pulls his belongings away from Wallace Marine Park as city crews city clear a homeless encampment on Thursday March 31, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

In the early morning hours of March 27, an unspeakable tragedy happened in Salem.

Four homeless residents of our community died when a driver left the road and struck their tent encampment. Two more were gravely injured, but survived.  Three of the four killed were under 30, as was one of the two who were injured.

Two weeks have passed, but the most important question remains unanswered.  Why were those people camping next to a high-speed roadway?

They camped there because there was nowhere else to go, because they were seeking safety in a world with no safe space. Just to be clear, trespassing camps is sometimes necessary for public health and safety reasons.

But from Los Angeles to Seattle, enforcement actions have driven homeless populations into hard-to-reach, slow-to-trespass parcels, next to high-speed roadways. Increasingly large numbers are essentially herded from one spot to another, and every time that happens the desperation grows. The sanctuary of even a dangerous camp near speeding cars, over no camp, is often irresistible.

Our unsheltered homeless are a canary in a coal mine, one that shows something much more fundamental and serious is wrong.

– Jimmy Jones

So why don’t they just go to shelters?

There are often beds available.  Are people choosing to be outside when they could shelter in a safer environment? Yes, they are.  But there are some things to understand here.

There are not enough shelter beds in Oregon to accommodate our entire homeless population.  There are especially not enough low barrier shelter beds to meet the demand, places where you can bring your pet, your partner, and find a room without sobriety requirements.  We are adding these high-leverage beds as fast as possible.

In the meantime, people often feel “safer” sleeping outside, even if it’s next to a high-speed roadway.

So what can we do?  We need strategic patience. It took us 30 years to get here, and it will take us at least 20 more to get out. We don’t have anything close to enough resources to end it faster. All we can do is reduce the number outside over time.

Any number reducing itself over time eventually reaches zero. That timeline is under ideal conditions, with smart and consistent public policy. What if we’re not smart?

I have worked with thousands of homeless people ­– housed many of them, sheltered others, and sometimes walked them to their graves. The hard truth is that homelessness is not a crisis created by compounding poor personal choices. It may be hard to believe but our current generation did not invent drugs, violence nor bad choices.

We haven’t fallen from a golden age of personal responsibility into chaos. There are larger, macro-economic forces that are cold, impersonal, complex but also insidious in creating conditions where people have no choice but to live outside.

We have not yet seen the worst of it.

All the forces creating homelessness grow worse each year:  high housing/rental costs, too few units, the drug crisis, limited mental health services, and a dangerously frayed social safety net. It’s likely we won’t see the peak numbers of American homeless for another decade. We can only stick with data-driven proven practices: low-income housing subsidies, street outreach, wrap-around services and low-barrier non-congregate shelters. We stick with a generational commitment to the principle that we leave no one behind. That every person has infinite worth, that if we allow even a single life to be extinguished or the promise of it to go unrealized, that we are all the lesser for it.

What will not work?

We have a laundry list of failed approaches dating back 40 years.  We cannot arrest, incarcerate, trespass, or enforce our way out of this crisis. None of those things will house so much as a single homeless person. You cannot successfully criminalize someone’s right to exist, and tough-love approaches have very little historical success.  They didn’t work with the war on drugs 25 years ago and they won’t work today.

That worthy poor, moral systems approach gave us high barrier shelters, “housing ready” strategies, and programs based on compulsion and not choice; in short the very programs and shelters our homeless cannot use today.

We each must take personal responsibility for every soul in abject poverty outside. Our unsheltered homeless are a canary in a coal mine, one that shows something much more fundamental and serious is wrong.  If we return to the failed policies of the past, we risk turning a serious issue into an unsolvable one.  And if we fail to provide people a place to go, the tragedy of March 27 will happen again.

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Jimmy Jones

Jimmy Jones is the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency in Salem. The agency provides anti-poverty and harm-reduction programs in Marion and Polk counties, and some program areas serve as many as 11 Oregon counties. Jones also serves as the chair of the Legislative Committee of the Community Action Partnership of Oregon. He is also a member of the Housing, Homelessness and Human Services Committee of the Governor’s Racial Justice Council.