Unsigned editorial / opinion from Street Roots, May 20, 2008

Street Roots fully supports the idea of housing first – the idea that we as a community can engage individuals on the streets with low-income housing.

Portland is badly in need of leadership that will guide our city to the resources needed for people on the streets to thrive through a broad approach that includes economic development (micro-enterprising), outreach and engagement efforts through non-law enforcement and harm reduction models, and of course, housing itself.

The protesters in front of City Hall demanding an end to the camping and sit-lie ordinances have thrown a wrench into a larger bureaucratic battle that’s been playing out behind the scenes for years.

The city’s response to what many bureaucrats say are unreasonable demands (repealing the camping and sit-lie ordinances) have been to open 102 emergency shelter beds, 90 for men and 12 for women. The problem is that one of the goals of the 10-year plan to end homelessness was to get away from sheltering individuals and to providing permanent supportive housing first.

The reason for this is twofold: First, shelters are more expensive to run and don’t wield the results of the housing first model. Secondly, when shelters beds don’t fill up, the city can enforce the city’s camping ordinance. State law requires law enforcement not to enforce the ordinance if shelters are full.

Like it or not, many individuals experiencing homelessness are not going to sleep in a shelter, period. There are also people living with animals; couples, and families that simply will not be split up due to archaic shelter guidelines. And yes, there are drug addicts. Individuals dealing with an addiction are human beings, and using law enforcement to force individuals into the criminal justice system, and not have the same access to shelters as the broader population, is inhumane, costly, and backwards.

Street Roots has been covering camp sweeps, the camping ordinance and other criminalization efforts, along with innovative solutions to ending homelessness since our inception. On the ground level, we’ve consistently been told by our peers, vendors and other people on the streets that the number one issue beyond finding housing is law enforcement moving individuals from one place to another, time and again, with no alternative.

The people in front of City Hall have organized themselves. Their leadership is strictly from the streets. For better or worse, they’ve created community, and at the end of the day, tried to make the world a better place for themselves and people just like them.

We are all on the same side in this fight — local businesses, community organizations, City Hall, advocates, social services, and the people affected the most. It’s clear that there are not enough resources. But we can’t lose our focus on being able to couple short-term, out-of-the-box thinking with a housing first model that has proven successful. We can’t be distracted into thinking shelter beds are a satisfactory means to end the criminalization of the homeless or to house people. Portland’s leaders need to reinforce long-term solutions to truly make a difference.