Our Opinion: Don't think of 'the homeless' as monolithic group
This is the first week for the winter shelter program in Forest Grove and Cornelius in the 2019-20 season.
It's a sure sign, albeit a bittersweet one, that the blackest, coldest days of winter aren't far away. This week, the temperatures may be mild — or so those of us who have heated homes to sleep in can say — but in the weeks to come, there will be bitterly cold nights when no person should be forced to sleep outside, on the streets or under a tarp in the woods.
We're grateful to have nonprofit groups and churches providing services for the homeless in Forest Grove and Cornelius, as well as in Hillsboro. But we recognize that not all community members are pleased to have people who are homeless congregating in their towns.
The category of "homeless" is a broad one. Beyond the legal vagaries of the term — are you homeless if you are living with a friend or family member, or are you homeless if you are living in an RV, or do you have to be well and truly "unsheltered" to be considered homeless? — the homeless population doesn't fit into a single category.
There are people who are homeless because they had an unexpected expense — multiple studies have found that medical bills are by far the biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States — and they didn't have enough in savings, or a good enough insurance policy, or family and friends who could pitch in to defray their costs.
Even if you're feeling comfortable yourself, more of your neighbors than you might think are what is often called "housing-insecure." In other words, an unplanned episode could thrust them into enough debt that they can no longer afford their rent or mortgage payments. Some might be able to find a new, less desirable living situation that fits within their drastically reduced means, such as taking on roommates or holing up on someone's couch. Some might have nowhere to go and end up living on the streets.
In some cases, this expense might be a one-time deal — bills that are beyond a person's means to pay them, but not bills that will keep recurring month after month. In these cases, homelessness may be a transitory state. It may take time, it will likely take some luck, and it will certainly take a lot of hard work, but there is hope for someone who loses their home because of this kind of one-time major expenditure that they can get back on their own two feet, hold onto a job and eventually make enough to move back into a place of their own.
But that isn't always the case, and that brings us to another category of people experiencing homelessness: the chronically ill and disabled. In these cases, physical or mental health issues often render a person unable to work. Without anyone to support them or vast retirement savings to fall back on, these people will find themselves homeless through no real fault of their own.
Chronic illness and disability have many facets. In some cases, a person may have a severe impairment or illness that makes them a danger to themselves and others, causing violent tendencies or pathological dishonesty. But more commonly, people who are mentally ill or disabled are no more dangerous than anyone else, even though they may lack the capacity to hold down a steady job, and in some cases, they may be unable to care for themselves.
Addiction is often considered a mental illness, although because of state and federal laws, the actively addicted often fall into a third category of homeless: people with criminal records or other legal problems.
Although "ban the box" and other reform efforts have tried to address the issue, ex-criminals often find it very difficult to find employment or housing because of the black mark on their record. Most employers, and many landlords, require background screenings as a matter of course. In some cases, they will choose to overlook a long-ago conviction. But for the more recently convicted and especially those convicted of serious offenses, there's little chance of escaping those lasting repercussions.
Shelter is a basic human need, and every person needs somewhere to sleep in relative safety and comfort. But the ex-convict population among the homeless is part of what gives other people pause — understandably — about the community embracing people who are homeless, especially when they are coming in from other areas to stay at a shelter.
Many people with criminal records have tried their best to put it behind them — they made a terrible mistake, and they have spent the rest of their lives dealing with the consequences. But rehabilitation isn't always possible, and recidivism isn't uncommon. Some people turn to crime because "they have to" — stealing food so they can eat, or for addicts, committing theft to pay for drugs or alcohol. Some are simply inclined toward violence or perversion. It's not always easy to separate the two. If it were, perhaps it would be easier for ex-criminals who are trying to turn their lives around to get the opportunity to do so.
It's also true that there is a fourth category of homeless — one that has perhaps gotten more media attention than is proportionate, but one that still does exist — and that is people who choose to be homeless.
We've all seen the TV reports and interviews with people who say they just like living in an RV or camping outside every day. For some, that's surely true. For others, an undiagnosed mental issue or an unacknowledged criminal record may be more to blame. In other words, this is likely a smaller group than many people expect. Most people want to live comfortably and securely, and being homeless isn't comfortable or secure.
It's irresponsible and inappropriate to tar all homeless people with the same broad brush. It's an unfortunate reality that there are some proverbial "bad apples" among the homeless. But that's true of virtually every group. No neighborhood is immune to crime and violence. There's no demographic that is pacifistic and law-abiding through-and-through.
Homeless and unsheltered people all have one thing in common: they are homeless and unsheltered. They need a place to stay, especially when the weather turns inhospitable.
We know that reaction has been mixed as well to a new amenity that the nonprofit alliance Community Connection has added for the winter season. But we'd ask anyone who is against the mobile shower trailer to consider how they would feel if they were unable to bathe or shower.
Like shelter, hygiene is a basic human need. It's vital to human health. It's also critical for people who are trying to work their way out of destitution. And whether a person is going from a night shelter to a retail job, or they are going from a night shelter to a day shelter and back to a night shelter, they deserve to be able to get clean.
There are some legitimate concerns about a shower trailer. As with any other amenity, it will require regular work to operate and maintain it. A group of volunteers has committed to its upkeep. It would be unfortunate if, a few years down the road once the "newness" has worn off, there aren't enough people who are willing to put the work in to keep it functional. It will also require someone to pay the bills, as it needs to be hooked up to a water line, and water isn't free. Those expenses are being paid right now, and they are something for which shelter organizers will have to budget going forward.
But what we don't think is legitimate is the idea that providing showers for the homeless is somehow extravagant. This is a basic right, not a luxury. If it helps, think of a shower the same way you think of a toilet. After all, you'll generally find them in the same room in your own home.
Lastly, whether you are a longtime supporter of homeless services in the community or you're still skeptical, consider volunteering your time at a shelter near you. Whether it's a night shelter or a day shelter, the chances are very good that they need volunteers like you. Visit sos-shelter.org, oldtownfg.com/shelter or familypromisewashingtoncountyoregon.org to learn more and see how you can help — and expand your own understanding of what it means to be homeless in western Washington County.
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