Addressing homelessness in our community requires addressing our own assumptions, stereotypes

Feb. 9, 2019 — There are a lot of things we are proud of as Oregonians:

The scenic beauty that constantly surrounds us;

Our generally progressive thinking and approaches to important issues;

Not being California.

Yet, amid all the things about Oregon that make us proud, there’s one thing I find hard to admit about my beloved state.

While homelessness has declined around most of the nation, Oregon continues to have the highest percentage of homeless families and children. As the number of homeless families has decreased in 41 states across America since 2016, in Oregon we have experienced a 2.5 percent increase — the fifth-highest in the nation.

Right after California.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), more than half of Oregon’s homeless families (60.5 percent) are without shelter, living in cars or tents within areas of that scenic beauty I mentioned earlier.

As much as we may want to tell ourselves that most of the homeless are drug addicts, criminals or suffering from mental illness, the fact is that more than half of the homeless living without shelter in Oregon — over 7,000 of them — are either school-aged (64.4 percent) or displaced veterans (55 percent).

To bring it a little closer to home, each day more than 70 students between the Siuslaw and Mapleton School Districts go to class, participate in school activities and then finish the day with no permanent home to return to.

In 2016, 4.3 percent of Siuslaw’s student body was homeless. By comparison, the state average is actually lower at 3.7 percent.

According to a study released by the Oregon Department of Education last November, 2017 saw a 5.6 percent increase in student homelessness — continuing a trend in Oregon for the fourth consecutive year.

Before we can truly address the issue of homelessness, we must be willing to understand that many of those who are living their lives without a home aren’t those who are readily identified as homeless.

They aren’t necessarily the ones we see on street corners or parking lots asking for change.

They aren’t the ones we can easily avoid making eye contact with as we busy ourselves past them.

The fact is, they are also those whose faces we recognize each day but who never say a word about their homelessness.

They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, students, cooks, part-time employees, unemployed veterans and senior citizens faced with deciding between medication, food or shelter.

That’s not a stereotype we want to acknowledge. But it’s one we must be willing to accept in order to affect the kind of change that will, in turn, change the lives of the homeless in our community and our state.

As we consider state measures and explore local policies aimed at addressing the issues of affordable and transitional housing, the most important component to reducing homelessness in our communities will be our ability to acknowledge our own stereotypes about homelessness.

That is the most important step we can take toward reversing the trend of homelessness in our state — and achieving something we can all be proud of as Oregonians.

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