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Homelessness Requires Multiple Remedies

November 5th, 2021 by dk

We haven’t had our first hard freeze of the year, but it’s coming any day now. You can feel it, but most of us won’t feel it in our bones. We’ll turn up the heat, worried only whether we picked our gardens clean before the frost claims what’s left.

Some won’t be so fortunate. Lane County counted 3,155 neighbors without a roof over their heads a few months ago. Forecasters are expecting this winter to be wetter and colder than normal. We must brace ourselves for several difficult months ahead.

Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce has studied this issue with new depth, calling on business leaders to join non-profits and local governments to build a comprehensive plan to make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring.” You can read the report on  their website or hear more about it at today’s City Club meeting. (links below)

For a good first step, can we stop quibbling over terminology? Yes, I understand that referring to “the homeless” somehow feels more encompassing than “the unhoused.” Keeping people in the conversation is far more important than policing their language.

If anything, this population confounds us because we insist on referring to them as a single group, using whichever word we prefer. In fact, those without homes can be sorted into at least six or seven categories. Each requires a different set of solutions.

First, there are those with mental illnesses that prevent them from participating in society in conventional ways. They may lose track of their money, their home and their very identity from time to time. They cannot function autonomously without wraparound care.

Addictions have taken control of a second group, often making them indistinguishable from the first. Self-medication can disrupt all other remedies, be they chemical, social, or physical.

The third group is where we focus most of our attention, because they are the ones we understand best. Those who are temporarily distressed can find themselves on the street because of suddenly lost family, work, or health. Intervening on their behalf quickly can prevent them from losing their bearings and their place in society.

The fourth and fifth groups make many people angry. We used to call them “travelers” even though most have family nearby. Half are confused or lost or escaping abuse. Often they are young. The other half are opportunistic freeloaders, taking advantage of provided assistance.

Lastly, we must face the fact that there are predators. They take advantage of vulnerable people, seizing on our confusion between these disparate groups and their very different needs. You might also add a seventh group, made up of activists who refuse to participate in a society they believe is inherently unjust and inhumane.

Assessment is essential to sort these situations out and it must be continuous. Almost every one of those 3,155 would fit into more than one of these categories on any given day. Devising remedies that are resilient enough to reach everyone will require constant discernment and vigilance. Winter won’t wait.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at www.dksez.com. The Chamber’s report: https://www.eugenechamber.com/state-of-homelessness.html and City Club’s meeting: https://cityclubofeugene.org/forum/seeking-solutions-the-state-of-our-homelessness-crisis/

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