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Portland’s Homeless Problem

My hometown, Portland, Oregon, has a homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges—more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It’s impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways, and where you can’t walk long without being hit up for spare change. You can hardly drive near the city center without encountering men or women holding up cardboard signs asking for money at an intersection...

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness of one kind or another, though many remain undiagnosed. “We see people with schizophrenia, depression, and trauma,” says Alexa Mason at the Portland Rescue Mission, another Christian nonprofit that provides food, blankets, and temporary shelter downtown. “Women on the streets are likely to be assaulted within 72 hours. Men get beat up. Just living outside is traumatizing...When you add that on top of schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, people keep getting worse. This is one thing that everybody in government, social services, and the business community agrees on.”

Not everyone on the streets is mentally ill, and not all are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some just lost their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and found themselves in a maze from which they couldn’t escape. What almost all of them share, however, are weak social and family ties. “Almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network,” says Mason. “A lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.”

Something that seems to be unique to Portland is a homeless encampment that is governed by the homeless themselves under a contract with the city:

...In 2000, before the courts struck down one of Portland’s sit-lie ordinances, a group of homeless people, tired of getting rousted from doorways downtown, pushed their shopping carts together under a bridge, pitched some tents, and called the place home. The city chased them from that spot, so they moved to another bridge and got tossed out again. Realizing that these people weren’t going away, the city finally relented and allowed them to pitch their tents on a city-owned lot near a drainage canal—across from the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a state-run prison, and on the other side of the fence from Portland International Airport. From Portland officials’ point of view, the location was perfect. They wouldn’t hear complaints from the neighbors because there weren’t any neighbors. The homeless campers dubbed their site Dignity Village, with the motto “Out of the Doorways.”

...Dignity Village costs local taxpayers nothing. Residents pay all their own utility bills, including $35 a month for space rent. They pitch in to pay for community water, electricity, garbage collection, and a wireless Internet account. The houses have no indoor plumbing and most aren’t wired for electricity, but three have solar panels, and all are kept warm in the winter with propane heaters. Charging stations for cell phones and laptops have been placed near the community kitchen, the community shower house, and the portable toilets. Rain catchment systems alleviate water costs.

I wondered aloud if the word “homeless” truly applies any longer to these people. “Technically,” Proudfoot says, “this is transitional housing. That’s why we want to get our own property. We won’t have to sit under a city contract any more.” Many residents have jobs, though they aren’t full-time. One guy mows lawns. Another chops and sells firewood…

— Michael Totten, City Journal (Portland)

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