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From The Editor is where the editor of THE BEE expresses an opinion on a variety of local issues

"Informal camping" on parks, sidewalks, and along streets, is illegal in Portland. But, like many other things in Portland that are illegal (traffic infractions for example) it is not currently being enforced. So such informal camping has been an issue for residents and visitors for quite some time; the city leadership believes "it is unkind to direct campers to leave parks, sidewalks, and roadsides, unless there is another place where they can safely shelter."

The city has been mulling over, for two long years, just where such a place could be. They now have decided, under the title "Shelter to Housing Continuum", to provide such spaces around the city. Some may be on city-owned property; others may be on leased private property. Various locations around the city have tentatively been identified for this.

In Sellwood and Westmoreland, the "identified" property at this point appears to be a lot owned by the Portland Water Bureau at S.E. 21st Avenue and Harney Street – currently dedicated for the use as a well-established community garden. Some local residents are raising their own food there, and would lose that resource if this plan is realized. But, we are assured, use of the garden space is still under discussion, and has not yet been firmly decided. The property in question is 10,000 square feet in size, which is not all that big for a large homeless settlement. SMILE member Vikki DeGaa suggests a more appropriate place might be a parcel of undeveloped private property, which the city would have to lease, just west of the Les Schwab store at S.E. McLoughlin Boulevard and Tacoma Street. No matter what locations are chosen, there will be some disruptions to the Portland community, and thus there will be objections. But, on the positive side of the ledger, if the "Shelter to Housing Continuum" proceeds, the city assures that it will begin to enforce the prohibition against camping in parks, on sidewalks, and along streets. If you would like to learn more about this city project, there is a website you can consult – www.portland.gov/bps/s2hc Although this "S2HC" project is an attempt to address the mess that uncontrolled camping has made of our city, particularly downtown, it seems to us that any real progress cannot occur until Portland, and every other major city on the West Coast, fully and formally recognizes that "the homeless" are not a homogenous block of people – a single population with unanimous objectives – but a disparate group of several different kinds of people with very different motivations and needs.

The first subgroup is the one that everyone has been trying to help from the beginning – those who have fallen on hard times, and do want a job and a home. These people really want a way out, and just need a helping hand. Our hat is off to Multnomah County for recognizing this particular subset of the homeless population, and building shelters to provide this kind of help for them, for as long as it is needed – the Willamette Shelter in Westmoreland has been a model of this type of shelter. It has strict and enforced rules for those who are living there, while it provides job and personal assistance, and a place to stay until their objective is attained. It specializes in women, couples, and veterans, we understand. Those who live near it, as does THE BEE, have found it to be a good neighbor. But there are at least three additional distinct categories of people amongst what is collectively called "the homeless", and homelessness cannot effectively be addressed until each group is separately addressed. The second subgroup is composed of those who like and prefer homelessness as a lifestyle, and do not want to change that; they will welcome nicer camping options, but are not interested in more.

There are criminals among the homeless, who take advantage of community sympathy but are mainly interested in pursuing their own personal objectives, which often center on drug use, theft to finance a drug habit, and selling drugs to others. No amount of sympathy is likely to change this group because they, too, often like the life they live, and have no concern about others. They often carry guns or knives as well. And then there are the mentally ill. At one time, the State of Oregon recognized an obligation to provide living space and treatment in a safe environment for those who are mentally ill – but not lately. It seems to be easier for every level of government in Oregon to just let the mentally ill camp on the street, and turn a blind eye – both to the problems of these troubled people, and to the danger they often represent to others…including other homeless. This group, often a danger to themselves and others, can only be served ethically by once again providing them a secure place to live, while they receive mental treatment for as long as they need it.

Aside from the specific shelter system being provided by Multnomah County, we have seen no indication that any governmental agency on the West Coast has recognized that the distinctly different types of homeless must be addressed in distinctly different ways if any of them are to benefit. That has to be step one for any real progress to be made, in our opinion.

And, one more thing. It has become common these days to refer to the homeless as "houseless". We understand that this word is intended to replace a word that some feel to be stigmatized, but we believe quite firmly that it is a misguided idea. The word "houseless" simply trivializes the homeless – by condescending to suggest that all these people need or want is a better container to be in. A house is a box. A home, whether rented or owned, is a much emotionally-richer place – where one can grow roots, follow aspirations, raise a family, and have a life. Every apartment dweller in Portland is, technically, houseless. None are homeless. There is a distinction there; it's more than just semantics. With using the word "homeless", those who aspire to have a home are at least accorded some dignity, so we will preferentially continue to use that word for this condition in THE BEE.


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