When we stop hiding homelessness, we can start solving it

It's time the United States caught up with Third-World countries in letting the homeless camp together

May 2, 2003 issue of street roots
By John Hubbird
Contributing columnist

Two recently released national reports on homelessness loom as glaring signposts pointing to nowhere except shantytowns as a short-term strategy for meeting basic needs of people now living on the streets.

The first report is by the Coalition to End Homelessness, titled "Illegal to be Homeless" (available at www.nationalhomeless.org). This document makes no bones about the ugly fact that we are foolishly wasting tax dollars to create more and more criminals through local ordinances designed to punish and degrade and ultimately "disappear" homeless people from the very public space that they are forced to live in.

This not only wastes public money, it works against reintegrating homeless people back into mainstream society, and should be morally repugnant to everyone with a conscience. This national trend also should alarm and outrage fiscal conservatives at least as much, say, as paying police to monitor peace protesters, since it costs lots of public money to hire police to chase homeless people around town, to cite them, to adjudicate them, to jail them, etc. This report powerfully begs the question, what will it take to end this national disgrace?

Enter another report from the Urban Institute titled "What it will take to end homelessness? (available at www.urban.org under research and homelessness). This report concludes by telling us four things we need to do to end homelessness:
1.) rebuild communities, especially the most troubled ones,
2.) build more housing and subsidize the costs to make it affordable to people with incomes below the poverty level,
3.) help more people afford housing by providing them with better schools, better training and better jobs, and
4.) prevent the next generation of children from experiencing homelessness.

The only problem is, that neither the Bush administration nor the private sector is doing any of these four things at a scale that will end homelessness. But it's important to remember that Clinton didn't do these four things during his eight years in office, either, nor is it likely that any of the "centrist" Democrats lining up to run against Bush is going to do them either. Washington, D.C., is way too busy giving tax cuts to the rich and spending what public money's left on the military to be the bullies of the world. And Oregon is being hit particularly hard as thousands of Oregonians are being added to the ranks of the homeless by recent budget cuts, which is in addition to several thousand who were already living on Portland's streets before the cuts.

So, sadly, we need to accept the fact that there is no solution to homelessness coming to the rescue anytime soon, and maybe there will never be one in our lifetime. Even if all the needed funds were allocated tomorrow, it would still take several years to implement the programs and build the needed housing.

This leaves only one sensible and decent thing to do. This is not rocket science. Hello? Homeless people are human beings who simply need safe and legal places to sleep at night in order to meet their basic needs for food, rest, companionship, etc. Legalized homeless encampments are an obvious short-term solution -- harkening back to the HooverVilles and Federal Transient Services in the United States during the '30s -- to meet the basic needs of homeless people.

The U.N. now has a program to convert Third World shantytowns and refugee camps into sustainable settlements. Ironically, it's time for the U.S.A. to catch up to the Third World and allow its displaced populations to take care of themselves as best they can by camping on otherwise unused land.

At least the very poor in the Third World are allowed to set up shantytowns and refugee camps to meet their basic needs for survival. In this respect, the Third World has something important to teach us.

Allowing legalized encampments may not be the perfect solution, but it is certainly a much more cost-effective and humane approach than continuing to criminalize the very poor. Dignity Village has demonstrated that legal encampments work.

At a per-person, per-night cost of 17 cents, Dignity Village now provides a safe, legal, and sanitary haven for homeless people to meet their basic needs and stabilize their lives. Many have found that once their lives are stabilized, it is much easier to think constructively about the future, find a job, save money, get a home. The fact that many Portland police now routinely refer homeless people to the village speaks loudly about the positive value of such an approach -- even for the police.

As long as homeless people are being harassed, chased around town or jailed by police, it only exacerbates the problem and creates an illusion of normalcy and business-as-usual, which in turn feeds into our collective denial about the seriousness of the problem. I suspect that if we had open, visible encampments of homeless people taking care of themselves and one another, that it might prove to be just the stimulus that policymakers need to finally solve the housing crisis.

As was often said during the early days of the Dignity Village campaign, "We need two, three, many tent cities!"

Allowing legalized encampments may not be the perfect solution, but it is certainly a much more cost-effective and humane approach than continuing to criminalize the very poor.

John Hubbird has worked for 15 years on affordable housing and homelessness issues, most recently with Dignity Village.
He can be reached by e-mail at hubbird@spiritone.com or by phone at 503-284-6670.