“Homelessness,” like “poverty,” is a one-word name for a constellation of problems that have deep roots and far-reaching consequences.
There is not just a single reason that a person ends up homeless and not a just a single answer to the needs of everyone who seeks a place in shelter. A person with mental illness or addiction is not homeless for the same reasons as an out-of-work mother trying to keep her family together or a teenager escaping an abusive home. These are all different problems and each calls for a different response. Homeless shelters around the state say they have to turn people away as space fills up; Portland reports record numbers of people seeking housing in its homeless shelters. The increased number seeking services has caused some people to question how freely the state and its communities provide those services. The number of people seeking shelter beds, however, just tells you the size of the problem, it’s not the problem itself. Denying services won’t make those problems go away, it will only increase suffering and create stresses elsewhere in the social service system. Portland has been making progress in addressing chronic homelessness, working to place long-term street-people in permanent housing, keeping the shelters for emergencies. This year, however, there has been a surge in the number of homeless families seeking help, which is reflective of the city’s tight housing market and the still-slow growing economy. Many working families are one car-repair bill or medical emergency away from losing a job and a place to live. Giving a homeless family a place to stay, sometimes in a motel when the 94-bed family shelter is full, might sound expensive, but not when you compare it to the cost of not housing them. According to research conducted by the National Conference of Mayors, 84 percent of homeless families are made up of a woman and her children. Forty-two percent of those children are under the age of 6. Homeless children are sick four times as often as other children. They are four times as likely to have asthma, three times more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems and twice as likely to be hungry. Failing to help that family find permanent housing puts stress on hospital emergency rooms, emergency food services and school budgets. The problem is not that barriers for services are too low, but that the need for affordable housing is too high. There is no easy answer to this problem, but ultimately the solution is to help them find a place to live, not turn them away from the shelters.