OPINION: Faith leaders seek sea change in homeless services
(Editor's note: The following was written on behalf of United in Spirit, an inter-faith organization in the Portland metropolitan area.)
What is a perfect solution to homelessness? (a) Plentiful, safe, and affordable housing options; (b) enough well-trained caseworkers to assess and provide wraparound services tailored for each houseless person; (c) easily accessible drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment; (d) clean water, healthy food and adequate medicine; (e) services and education for homeless children; (f) efficient coordination of all these resources so the people most vulnerable can have basic human needs met.
By any measure, Portland falls far short of these goals. We have in place randomly dispersed homeless encampments rife with trash and inadequate sanitation. Even when a caseworker interacts with a homeless person, there is usually inadequate or no follow-up contact with the individual, sometimes because the individual has moved to another location. Oregon ranks dead last in the nation for accessibility to substance abuse treatment. (According to Oregon Recovers, fewer than 1% of Oregonians who need treatment are receiving it!) While we have some new housing solutions, some are far behind schedule and others are still years from being completed. Unfortunately, these solutions are nowhere near what is needed now.
What we do have are siloed agencies operating in a complex non-profit and public/government ecosystem with limited coordination or cooperation. We have an ongoing human tragedy on a massive scale — thousands are suffering from hunger, disease, poor health, addiction, punishing weather and hopelessness. Where is the real end to this humanitarian crisis?
As a coalition of faith-based organizations, United in Spirit has advocated for our elected officials to act urgently to address this moral imperative. Political and public statements have their place — but only if their words move people to constructively address the situation in a timely and effective manner.
Recently, the mayor's office offered ideas that immediately sparked controversy and criticism as they challenged the status quo. They implored municipal and county governments, Metro, and the state to strategize together, now, to provide more shelter options to the homeless. Certainly, the size of the perfect shelter facility is debatable. While the process of moving people from squalor to safety must be compassionate and humane, we also know deliberate inaction is cruel — and, in some tragic instances, fatal.
It is noteworthy that our mayor appointed an individual with emergency management experience to head a new street camping coordination center in an incident command structure used for emergency events. We urge Community Safety Director Mike Myers to reach out to the many non-profit service providers to quickly harness and coordinate their collective energy and resources so that they can work in concert to provide the assistance that is now so desperately needed.
Until this most recent legislative session, when state lawmakers newly approved $400 million to pay for homeless services, state resources have been targeted to funding only permanent housing solutions. But today's crisis calls for new approaches, including making a range of housing options available on an urgent basis, from temporary to permanent options. Those who are destitute should not continue to suffer on the streets in worsening conditions. We cannot look away while our neighbors suffer. As people of faith, we embrace humanity and we advocate for adopting morally just strategies and rejecting those that are not.
It will take at least half a decade or longer, and billions of dollars, to house everyone who needs permanent stable housing. In the meantime, we believe that temporary housing with access to wraparound services is the compassionate response that can bring better health and better living conditions … and quickly.
Is this the perfect solution to homelessness? No. Is it better than what we have now? Absolutely.
In a crisis, there's no time for perfection. Winston Churchill said, "Perfection is the enemy of progress." Perfection also is not practical. It's time to be practical and bring immediate relief to suffering among those who are homeless and those who are impacted by the sheer size and scope of the problem. Progress is what real compassion demands and our community deserves. Now.
Rich Vial, on behalf of United in Spirit and the following organizations:
Catholic Archdiocese of Portland
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon
Jewish Federation of Greater Portland
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Portland, Oregon, area
Remember the Hope Christian Fellowship
Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church
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