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Knowing why people are homeless is a key factor in understanding how the problem comes about.

Some Beaverton residents are up in arms because a caravan of camper cars, filled with homeless people, has filled a local street (Beaverton Valley Times, Page A1, today's paper).

Before we get into the issue of the terrible plight of the homeless, let us first stipulate that it is 100 percent appropriate for neighbors to monitor their surroundings and to take their concerns to the City Council, which residents around Southwest Fifth Street and Western Avenue recently did.

Situational awareness is the right and the duty of neighbors everywhere. If something is out of place in your neighborhood, you should speak up.

But like almost everything else in this convoluted century, the issue of homelessness is complicated and, often, needlessly polarized.

Reporter Mandy Feder-Sawyer went out to that neighborhood and spoke to some of the people living in their vehicles. She also spoke to others in the neighborhood.

She found a basic truth that almost all of us have known but which sometimes we forget to consider: nobody chooses to be homeless. Sometimes homelessness is the result of bad decisions, but quite often, as in the stories Feder-Sawyer reported this week, homelessness can be the result of an unexpected and uninsured illness, or a layoff, or even bad timing with a welfare check.

Almost all of the people who are homeless in our community wish they weren't, and are taking steps to change their status.

Yes, sometimes the cause of homelessness is mental illness and sometimes the cause is addiction. Often, it's both. And for those unfortunate souls, getting back on their feet might not be possible.

But for many of the homeless, it is possible. And even probable.

Assistant Editor Mark Miller recently introduced readers to Pam May, recording secretary for Just Compassion, an agency that helps the homeless (Tigard-Tualatin Times, Page A1, Sept. 21 edition). For five years, May was homeless. She said she lost her job after missing time due to a medical issue for which she did not have health insurance, and she ended up losing her home and being forced out onto the streets. Just Compassion invited her to participate, to give a voice to the homeless after she started coming to its meetings, and eventually, she was accepted into a program that allowed her to move into her own apartment. She has been in housing for five years now.

With her job at Just Compassion, May went from being part of the problem to part of the solution.

One of the reasons people in Washington County are homeless is the shortage of affordable housing in the county. It's supply and demand. According to some estimates, Washington County is 14,000 units short of "affordable" housing — defined as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income.

How likely is that? Very likely.

In its Affordable Housing Development Strategy document, the county said as much as 70 percent of households pay more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing. And 39 percent of households pay fully half their income on housing.

Washington County and the cities within the county have done great work identifying the problem of homelessness. But they haven't come up with many solutions for homelessness. To be fair, neither have most other cities, counties or states in the nation. Homelessness is endemic in our society, and it's gotten decidedly worse since the economy was altered — perhaps permanently — by the Great Recession.

Residents have every right to worry about safety and sanitary conditions when large or medium-sized homeless encampments appear in their neighborhoods. The cities and the county do need to be reactive to these issues.

But demonizing the homeless doesn't help. Neither does sending them "somewhere else," when we have a clear and demonstrable lack of "somewhere else" for them to be, including temporary shelters and affordable housing stock.

For now, all of our cities need to grapple with this problem. And a good two-part strategy would be: Listen to all sides, and get to know the stories behind the homeless.

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