Homelessness – no easy answers

Anyone who tells you there is a quick and easy fix for homelessness is “selling you a bill of goods”. It’s not true. It’s a problem years in the making, with many complicated aspects, and we’re not going to make it go away overnight.

Homelessness is about housing. It doesn’t take a doctorate in economics to understand that when something becomes more expensive, fewer people can afford it. The same thing is true of housing, believe it or not!

As YIMBYs, we believe in housing abundance – more housing of all shapes and sizes. But Bend residents without any housing are those furthest away from benefiting from more market-rate housing. Housing abundance is the best long-term solution, but it will take time.

“Drugs” are often cited by armchair experts as a cause of homelessness. But when we look at the facts, West Virginia has a raging opioid epidemic, and far lower rates of people without a place to sleep. Why? Because housing is cheaper there. To be clear, some people clearly have issues with substance abuse, but it becomes that much more difficult to help them if housing is extremely expensive. This article goes into some detail about substance abuse and housing, and is well worth a read: https://homelessness.ucsf.edu/blog/how-atlantics-big-piece-meth-and-homelessness-gets-it-wrong 

Some claim that if you build shelters and give people a helping hand, it will “entice” people to move to Bend. Really? Come on… it’s cold and not easy here in the winter, and if people are really moving for “amenities”, they’re going to go somewhere warmer with more services. San Francisco, Los Angeles or Portland, for instance. Most people who do not have a home in the Bend area were living here prior to becoming homeless (source: a recent “point in time” count). They’re our neighbors, for the most part, not people who decided that living in a tent in winter in Bend sounded like fun.

So what can be done? What do we want our city to be like? Here are some thoughts and facts:

  • We believe everyone’s person and property ought to be secure. This includes businesses seeing camps spring up outside their front doors. They should not bear the burden of a systemic failure. It also includes people without any place to store their belongings.
  • The Martin vs Boise court case says that: “cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds available for their homeless population. The decision was based on the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
  • Our city does have some latitude to remove campers for health and safety reasons, but we cannot legally wholesale stop camping everywhere without having places for people to go.
  • Even if the city of Bend could do that, Bend does not control land owned by the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service outside of town. Push people out of town to, say, China Hat road, and you haven’t solved any problems, you’ve just shuffled them around. Now you have a bunch of people living in the woods, where they’re more liable to accidentally start a fire, and are far from services and jobs.
  • Which means the best option to divert people from camping on our streets is to have managed shelters of various types. What kinds, for who, where is a tricky question, and probably better suited for experts rather than, say, the loudest voices on social media, who know the people they are dealing with. We’re not going to see “one size fits all” solutions. 
  • If we build no shelters, we get the status quo, with unmanaged camps popping up here and there and everywhere.

So the bargain should look something like: we make safe, managed places available for people, and stop allowing random, unstructured, unsupervised camps on sidewalks and by roads.

This is safer and more predictable for everyone involved. Services will be available at the shelters. Trash pickup and toilets will keep the sites cleaner – and we should hold our elected officials and city staff to this promise.

Of course, it won’t be an overnight fix. Don’t believe anyone who promises that it will be.

Further reading:

Denver built managed camps, and like here, people were apoplectic. Until things actually went fairly well and the sky did not fall: https://denverite.com/2021/05/30/denvers-first-two-sanctioned-campsites-won-over-their-housed-neighbors-now-theyre-moving/

Homelessness is caused by scarcity of dwellings. The people who suffer the most from housing scarcity tend to be people who have other problems, too. But in a world of housing plenty, those problems don’t need to generate widespread homelessness. Conversely, if there aren’t enough homes to go around, then no amount of mental health services is going to fix the fact that someone is stuck without a place to live. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: