by Grace Growing Medicine Eagle Reed
Everyone agrees that homelessness is a serious problem. But good-hearted people everywhere are at a loss about what to do. We offer food and blankets, toiletries and warming centers. But this is just a band-aid—temporary relief at best. How do we actually solve the problem? How do we help individuals get off the streets and into stable housing, regaining dignity and normalcy in their lives?
Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon
Current State – Complexity of Homelessness
First, let’s look at what homelessness actually is. So often we refer to “the homeless” as if they were a race of people whose native country is the streets. This is not the case. There are many reasons people become homeless. I encourage research to deepen one’s understanding of the many why’s and how’s of homelessness. Here’s a brief summary of some of these factors.
The high cost of housing is the major reason for homelessness here in Portland, as in most cities. As rental rates go up, outstripping income, people are forced out of their homes because they can’t keep up on their payments.
Other reasons people find themselves on the streets include:
Teens running away from home
Fear of small spaces
While not all individuals experiencing homelessness are alcoholics or drug addicts, there are many who are. And many people fall into addiction and mental illness as a result of having to live on the streets.
Another group are the ‘travelers’, mostly youth, who roam from place to place. They come into the city to restock supplies and then disappear again.
Houselessness is a different thing. There are many people who “couch” from place to place, staying with friends and relatives. They are ‘inside’ but not stable and are at risk of becoming homeless. Many of these people are youth, LGBTQ and women with children escaping violence in their homes. There are also people who live in their cars/vans too. They are always looking for a place to camp—a very difficult thing to find in most cities.
Many downtown churches are stepping up to help. The Universalist Unitarian Church has a very aggressive program at the Goose Hollow shelter, mostly for women and children. Many churches have programs that make contact with homeless people by offering sandwiches and water. This allows them to serve in a humanitarian way and check in to see who is in crisis. They connect people with social workers who are linked to addiction centers and encourage them to come ‘inside’ to get treatment.
However, one reason the homeless people I have worked with don’t go into religious-based shelters is that they are ‘forced’ to accept Christ as their savior. But these people are not religious.
What Can We Do?
At last report, the cost of housing all homeless people in Portland is $30 billion! Portland simply does not have the resources to offer this kind of help. So what is possible? For individuals who care and want to help, what can we do—aside from supporting the churches, addiction centers, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Downtown Gospel Mission, etc.?
The good news is that there are time-tested solutions that are reasonable and can be implemented until more affordable housing is available.
Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. ~ Bahá'u'lláh
The Village Model
Kenton Women’s Village (KWV), first known as the Partners on Dwelling (POD) Village, was formed in June 2017 as a limited pilot project approved by the north Kenton neighborhood to accommodate up to 14 homeless women. The sleeping pods were designed by local architecture firms and PSU students studying design. A nonprofit, Catholic Charities, contracted as the wrap-around service to support the women as the pods filled. Donations of blankets, kitchen supplies, etc. came from many who wanted to support this yearlong project. KWV had port-a-potties, a small kitchen, laundry service, etc. All 14 women were given a chance to decide if they wanted to remain homeless or seek other options. Most are in housing now and doing well.
Kenton Women’s Village was approved as a permanent project in 2018 with better infrastructure for increased capacity and is located on grant-supported property designed for this kind of housing. Transition Projects Inc. developed a low-income housing project land grant supported by the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Catholic Charities, PSU Center of Public Interest Design, ReBuilding Center, City Repair, Kenton Neighborhood Association and Kenton Business Association.
There are other village-type shelter models emerging, such as Right To Dream Too, Hazelnut Grove, Dignity Village, Agape Village, with more in the process of forming.
The village model works. When homeless people live in a village with their peers, they are safer, they have automatic wrap-around services from social services and addiction workers and they can receive donations with dignity. This model gives churches a way to participate in a more efficient way. Many people, after living this way, choose to seek sobriety, stable housing and work. People cannot live without autonomy and dignity and this is the most workable solution for homeless people anywhere. The Tiny House movement needs support as well.
How Individuals Can Take Action
One of the most powerful ways to help solve homelessness is to go to your city hall and demand that these village models be supported and funded. They are struggling because people are unfamiliar with the lifestyle of those experiencing homelessness don’t understand that this is a humane solution to people sleeping on the streets.
Another way to help is to talk with your neighbors, friends, colleagues and associates and explain why this model should be supported. The more we can generate collective will around these solutions, the more successful they’ll be.
We cannot continue to be co-dependent and allow homeless people to live on the streets. It’s not good for them or for the community. It’s not good for the police who are forced to ‘sweep’ them off the streets. It’s not good for the sanity of all involved, for our morals and spirits. Please let’s support the Village and Tiny House movements as viable solutions to the homelessness crisis.
And the honour and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. ~ 'Abdu'l-Bahá
Forty-Eight Million, Four Thousand, and Four
At last report here in US
There are 48 million plus people
Living below the poverty line.
Not enough money to live on.
Not enough money to be human.
Not enough for the spirit
Just not enough
Here in Portland—last month there were 4 thousand ELDERS
Evicted from their homes!
Four Thousand old people
On the streets here in Portland!
Four people, 1 man and 3 women live under my window
They are homeless They are drunk
They scream and cry up against my building under my window
Day and Night I hear them screaming “Help!”
Help does not come! There is much talk and chatter
About help. Help does not come
She is middle aged
She lives on the street
Has for many years
She lives down there on the street under my window
She is drunk most of the time
She feeds the birds when she gets some bread to do so
She has her bottle in the paper bag
Her sanity fix
I live up here on the 5th floor of my Apt. at the Saint Francis
She is there and I am here
He is a Vet—fought for freedom
He is not free—He is homeless down there under my window
He does not drink
He hears voices and is silent most of the time
He suffers for our freedom
We live here and there in the SW—NW—East and North
Here in Portland
We care—We give money—food—clothes
We give kindness and even love
Them who live there and Us who live here
They live there and We live here
Every day I pray to some God
I call this God “The Great Mystery Power”
I ask this God every day
To help me
To help us
To protect me and us and them and they and her and him
All the she’s and he’s
And even the dogs and cats and birds and all creatures
Seems not much happens
They are still homeless and we are still baffled
Mr. John Bradshaw ask questions I paraphrased
“Do I matter?”
“Do I matter to you?”
“Do I matter to the world of God?”
“Will I matter after I die?”
Do they matter?
Grace Growing Medicine Eagle Reed is an artist, poet, healer, addiction counselor, mediator and author of Negotiating Shadows. She is a member of DSAC (Disability Service Advisory Council) of Multnomah County, an advisory council to city, county and state government on issues of homelessness and disabilities. Grace and her colleagues have been asked to serve on DSAC because they are the “boots on the ground”, working on the front line of the homelessness crisis here in Portland. She lives downtown, knows many of these people personally and understands their circumstances.