Mental health, addiction accelerate homelessness crisis
"Papa, why do those people live in tents?" My 5-year-old's question is piercing as we drive down the freeway. He sees the multi-varied colors of tent fabric, blankets and cardboard that make up the ramshackle dwellings, and his impulse is the right one: compassion.
He asked the question because he knows he is observing something that should not be. He knows we must care for neighbors on the street and that what he observes is not care. He knows there is supposed to be a roof over your head, and if there is not — something has gone terribly wrong.
But how can I explain the disheveled and ineffective response of local and state governments? These are the authorities who have been given resources and responsibility for change and care.
Our state and local governments are spending millions of dollars on care for the homeless and yet care is not evident. We hear cries from leadership of the high cost and lack of available housing, but we instinctively know the truth. The times that I have looked for my friends living under the bridge, it was not because the cost of housing was astronomical.
Addiction and mental health crises are the major causes of the plight of the homeless. We must not ignore this. It would be unjust and unloving to pretend it is anything else.
Our emphasis should be on the true causes, and we must ensure our funding and action are organized toward relieving those causes. To decry the housing market is to raise a distraction and attempt to exempt oneself from responsibility.
The legislature must audit the programs they have authorized and determine which funding is helpful and which is ineffective and inefficient. The problem is not money — the problem is a lack of effective action. I know nonprofit ministries that care for our homeless neighbors on a shoestring budget. They provide them food and clothing, an address to receive mail and showers and services so they can begin to look for jobs.
Do some neighbors need more comprehensive care? Of course! Let us provide the services to treat addiction and support mental health, with a goal of allowing them to walk back into functioning engagement in our community. This can start with highly interactive care and graduate to independent living.
The methods are available, but the will seems to be abandoned by our governmental leaders. We must expect more not just because we don't want the sight of tents next to a highway, but because it is the right thing to do. It is the just thing to do.
I want to live in a community where my boy asks the question, "Where did the tents go, Papa?" And I can say, "Our neighbors don't need them anymore."
Aeric Estep is a West Linn resident and candidate for House District 37, which includes West Linn and Tualatin. He can be found at aericfororegon.com and on Twitter, @aericestep.
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