Saturday, June 25, 2022
June 25, 2022

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Jayne: Homelessness isn’t ‘allowed’

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I don’t have the solution to homelessness in our community. But it likely is more complicated than a lot of people would like to believe.

“Look at this blight that greets us when headed to a family visit,” a Facebook friend recently wrote, posting pictures of Portland. “You know why degenerates flock to Portland? Because IT’S ALLOWED.”

Indeed, Portland is a mess. Homeless encampments line the banks of thoroughfares and highways, crime has increased, violence has increased, and a city that just a couple years ago was the epitome of vibrant urban culture has become a national punchline.

It also has become a warning for people in Vancouver, judging from letters to the editor published in The Columbian. Many local residents have written “Don’t let Vancouver turn into Portland!” — or something to that effect.

The concern is understandable. Many of our homeless neighbors are living in squalor, and it is painful to think of Americans living in unhealthy, unsanitary conditions. It is painful to imagine how the situation diminishes the quality of life for everybody in our community, even if we don’t quite become Portland.

Meanwhile, our neighbor to the south also provides an abject lesson in what happens when leaders ignore problems. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler last month finally announced a series of measures designed to clean up the city, using executive powers to centralize homeless services. The plan calls for shelters that would house 1,000 people apiece and be staffed by National Guard soldiers, and it calls for the lifting of due process protections for people camping along busy roads.

It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in sociology or urban planning to determine that these measures are about five years too late. And it’s not callous to have thought long ago that somebody needs to do something.

But as we ponder what that something might be, it seems that we need to go beyond suggesting that the blight is somehow “allowed.” And it seems that rather than calling for somebody to act, first we need to ask a question: Where will the people go?

That is the difficulty in dealing with homelessness. It’s one thing to say that people who set up a tent along a freeway exit should be told to leave; it is another to tell them where they should go.

The trope is that the policies of Democratic-run cities have led to an increase in homelessness. Never mind that elected positions in Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are officially nonpartisan. The other trope is that people are moving to permissive cities to be homeless. But surveys both formal and informal have routinely shown that a vast majority of unhoused people already lived in their city before becoming homeless.

When cities are desirable and attract newcomers faster than they can build housing, and when economies are drawing businesses that offer high-paying jobs that raise housing costs, and when land-use laws limit how quickly a city can expand … then you have a problem. You have too many people for too little housing.

Whether we like it or not, the market forces of supply and demand are more powerful than whether or not a city “allows” “degenerates” to live in tents.

And whether we like it not, cities are limited in their response. In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. Boise that municipalities may not enforce anti-camping ordinances if there are not enough shelter beds in the area. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. Last year, Boise agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle the case, putting the money toward housing solutions.

It is natural to be dismayed by vast homelessness in our community, and it is natural to want to blame permissiveness.

But it’s not that simple.

Until we spend public and private funds to enhance mental health and addiction services, until we alter land-use laws to allow more construction, and until we provide adequate shelters, we are left to wrongly claim that blight is simply being allowed.

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