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Homelessness is a warning that our systems are failing. How we rebuild is up to us.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Tiny houses could be one way to provide homes for people living on the street.When the recent point-in-time count showed a 20% increase in people living unsheltered in Multnomah County compared to 2017, crisis language soon followed.

But homelessness isn't the crisis you think it is.

A crisis takes many forms — an earthquake or a disease outbreak.

CONTRIBUTED - Marisa ZapataA crisis rallies communities to act quickly to save lives. Neighbors donate blood. Volunteers fill sandbags, and everyone shares food and shelter.

It's easy to think of homelessness in the same way. What else would you call it when community members die on the streets from extreme weather, lack of health care and stress? We see them sleeping in doorways and asking for help. Their suffering motivates us to volunteer and write checks. We yell at our elected officials for not doing enough.

Portland declared a state of emergency to pave way for more shelters and affordable housing. Local and state leaders continue to provide resources to create and maintain the one true solution: stable, quality, affordable and supportive housing. Multnomah County served nearly 19,000 people in permanent housing in 2018.

The crisis was declared, and we responded. So why are there more tents in our city parks and people living in their cars? A crisis necessitates a rapid, intense response to an event that has a clear ending.

But homelessness is not that kind of crisis.

Homelessness is not a singular event with a clear end point or easy solution. For every person who finds a home, there are more who have lost theirs.

It is no accident that people of color, especially blacks and Native Americans, women and gender nonconforming people, the mentally ill and people from the LGBTQ community experience homelessness at disproportionately higher rates.

We can call it a crisis if we like, but when we do we fixate on short-term solutions that ignore these systemic causes. We pore over small changes in the numbers from Multnomah County's recent Point in Time Count to see if we're "winning" or "losing." But those figures do not get us any closer to understanding the complexity of homelessness or the long-term solutions.

We have started the first leg of what will be a long recovery. We have been raising revenue to help those in need, preserving existing affordable housing and creating more, expanding support services and adopting policies that protect renters.

To truly stop homelessness, we need to fix the long-term systemic issues that lead to it in the first place. We need universal rights to safe and quality housing and universal health care so no one is forced to choose between buying insulin and making rent. We need major criminal justice reform that does not sentence people to life on the streets and an overhaul of how we support those with addiction and major mental illnesses so recovery is possible for everyone. We need stronger protections for historically marginalized communities so your ZIP code, gender identity or skin color doesn't dictate your future.

Homelessness is a warning that our systems are failing. How we rebuild is up to us.

Marisa Zapata is associate professor in the Toulan School of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University and directs PSU's Homeless Research and Action Collaborative.

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