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November 16th, 2011 BRENT WALTH | News Stories
 

Homeless, Not Faceless

Occupy Portland forced the city to face its persistent problems with homelessness.

news4-occupyafter_3802A Portland police officer cleans up debris in the closed Occupy Portland camp Nov. 13 - IMAGE: WW Staff
The homeless were back occupying the spaces under the Burnside Bridge on Monday, one day after their downtown real estate had been reclaimed by the city over the weekend.

The city shut down the illegal Occupy Portland camp that had become filthy and dangerous.

But much outrage was aimed at the Occupiers’ temerity. Why did they have to put social ills on display where we had to look at them? With holiday shopping season coming!

So it’s a return to normal for complacent Portlanders: the city’s homeless out of sight, out of mind.

The camp took shape around true believers but soon filled with homeless people. The camp also became a stew for serious troublemakers, and a conceit grew that the Occupy camp created all the problems on display.

“The problems Occupy Portland exposed were not a surprise to city officials or people who work with the homeless every day,” says Marc Jolin, executive director of JOIN, a local nonprofit helping homeless find housing. “It may have be a wake-up for the larger community.”

The city’s most recent homeless census, conducted last January, found 1,700 people sleeping in the city’s shelters or on its streets. Jolin says the homeless campers at Occupy Portland were a small percentage of the people who survive on Portland’s streets every night.

He says many of the homeless worked in the kitchen and helped with security—in other words, they contributed to what did work in the camp.

“I worry to the extent the media focused on problems at the camp and connected them to people being homeless,” Jolin says. “That’s not a fair representation.”

The city’s Housing Bureau is more than halfway through its 10-year plan to end homelessness. The city’s programs have found housing for thousands, but they can’t control the larger forces—poverty, housing costs, poorly funded services for the mentally ill—that worsen the problem.

“As a country we disinvest in mental-health services, and more people go without health insurance, leaving them one bad event from losing their home,” says Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Housing Bureau. “If we don’t address the problems at the front end, we’re going to pay a fortune one way or another.”

Meanwhile, money at the local level to deal with homelessness (much of it coming from the feds) continues to dry up. The cost of Occupy Portland in overtime and park repairs could have paid for a lot of permanent solutions.

A Nov. 11 editorial in Street Roots, the Old Town-based newspaper that focuses on homelessness and poverty, calls for new city rules for homeless camps. Such rules, the paper says, would give police and the homeless “clear directives about what is allowed and what isn’t concerning sleeping outdoors without a home.”

Not a popular idea after Occupy Portland, perhaps, but a timely one, with another recent homeless camp, Right 2 Dream Too, running at Northwest 4th Avenue and Burnside Street.

“Opening more shelter beds and providing more services is great,” says Israel Bayer, Street Roots’ director. “At the end of the day, there’s a hole in the bucket.”

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